Life: A Guide for the Perplexed (Convention Edition)

Much of the appeal of the Flying Karamazov Brothers -- aside from their juggling skills -- is their loose, lively, what-the-hey attitude. However, when the quartet attempts something a little more structured and significant, such as this thematic and more narrative-driven show originally produced at ACT in Seattle, they drop the ball.

With:
Dmitri - Paul Magid Ivan - Howard Jay Patterson Alexei - Mark Ettinger Pavel - Roderick Kimball

Much of the appeal of the Flying Karamazov Brothers — aside from their juggling skills — is their loose, lively, what-the-hey attitude. However, when the quartet attempts something a little more structured and significant, such as this thematic and more narrative-driven show originally produced at ACT in Seattle, they drop the ball.

It’s not that they aren’t capable of creating a show that is greater than their collective routines and silliness. It’s just that at this stage of the work’s development, it’s a meandering mess. At two hours and two acts, the show outlasts whatever goodwill the aud may have for this troupe, whose strength is its street performance and circus skills.

In this piece, the Flying K’s attempt to create a series of parables “designed to help you survive the modern world.” The show begins with the discovery of an ancient “book of life,” which purports to act as an instructional guide to get through the problems and puzzles of human existence, from conception, to birth, childhood, adolescence and beyond.

It’s a nice concept to launch a show, allowing the men’s principal talent — juggling — to act as a comic metaphor for a variety of life situations. Many of these engaging pieces work magic on several levels: Juggling “sperm” balls trying to make their way to a giant egg; juggling as a form of adolescent seduction; and the finale, with the quartet juggling illuminated cosmic balls in the dark. However, a “Seven Ages of Man” juggling scene is simply redundant.

The book-of-life concept also allows for all sorts of diversions along the way, including the Flying K staple of having the audience challenge one of the men to juggle a trio of unorthodox objects (an umbrella, a backpack and a woman’s shoe, for example). The problem is many of these side trips aren’t particularly funny, inventive or sharp.

Sometimes the scenes evoke burlesque sketches of the lamest order; other times they seem to be touching on the mystical or Pirandellian, but to no clear effect; the “bits” just ramble along. The narrative thread that tries to tie these routines together becomes increasingly thin, tenuous and frayed.

Also hurting its credibility is the promotion of the show as being a special “convention edition,” coinciding with the Democratic National Convention this week in Boston. Those expecting some pointed political fun will be disappointed. Aside from a bit of namedropping (“Dick Cheney” is not in itself a stand-alone punchline, even in Cambridge), the show is politically meager and simply underscores the failure of the troupe’s ambitions.

But the show has potential — with extreme editing and a more disciplined, perhaps outside eye — to strengthen the group’s best instincts (their juggling, banter, sweet spirit) and rein in the bad habits (inconsistent storytelling, uneven vocal abilities and love of puns that aren’t especially funny — even grading on a kind curve). With that kind of reshaping, this “Life” may be worthwhile; without it, it’s not so wonderful.

Life: A Guide for the Perplexed (Convention Edition)

Loeb Drama Center, Cambridge, Mass.; 556 seats; $45 top

Production: An American Repertory Theater presentation of a play in two acts by Paul Magid, music by Mark Ettinger, lyrics by Howard Jay Patterson. Directed by Michael Preston. Choreographer, Doug Elkins.

Creative: Sets, Bliss Kolb; lighting, David Hutson; costumes, Carolyn Keim; puppets and movement, Barbara Karger; sound, Mark Ettinger; scenic design and paint, Jessica Dodge; stage manager, David Hutson; company manager, Rhonda Sable. Opened July 22, 2004. Reviewed July 23. Running time: 2 HOURS.

Cast: Dmitri - Paul Magid Ivan - Howard Jay Patterson Alexei - Mark Ettinger Pavel - Roderick Kimball

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