The Flying Karamazov Brothers started out as street jugglers from U.C. Santa Cruz who performed around San Francisco in the mid-1970s. I remember watching them work a crowd of tourists one afternoon at the end of the Hyde Street cable car line near Fisherman’s Wharf.
In 1983, Robert Woodruff (co-founder of San Francisco’s Eureka Theatre, and incoming artistic director of Harvard University’s renowned American Repertory Theatre) cast them in a vaudeville-style production of Shakespeare’s "Comedy of Errors."
That show played the Goodman Theatre in Chicago and New York’s Lincoln Center. It was later taped and shown on PBS.
"Comedy of Errors" put the Flying Karamazov Brothers on the map. Since then the brothers have played prestigious venues worldwide.
On Tuesday, the Flying Karamazov Brothers opened their new show "L’Universe" at the Berkeley Rep’s Roda Theater. This is not a production by the Berkeley Rep, but a rental of the theatre to an outside group. The Brothers will be there for a month.
In some scenes of "L’Universe," the brothers play scientists Aristotle, Galileo, Newton and Einstein. They do a patter about science while they juggle. Fancy electronic equipment allows them to perform selected segments using computerized visual and musical effects.
But the show, written by brothers Paul Magid and Howard Jay Patterson, is an episodic hodge-podge with no real story or center or evolution or build. It’s a string of segments, some of which work better than others. And running more than two hours, it’s a long string of segments.
In one of the better bits, a wired virtual suit turns an audience volunteer into a human musical instrument, as the brothers guide him through a very complex and amusing set of instructions. In another funny moment, three brothers use their six hands in changing combinations to share tasks of juggling while playing a guitar and flute.
But many of the segments lack flair. Early on, for example, one brother juggles in sync and then out of sync with his shadow, which is played by a different brother behind a back-lit scrim. Since the brothers are not precision movement performers, the effect looks sloppy.
Elsewhere they play volleyball, of sorts, with the moon projected on a large computer screen upstage, bringing in an audience member to join the game. The edges of the ball on the screen, however, interact imprecisely with the human hands hitting it, taking much of the gas out of the illusion.
Later Galileo (Mark Ettinger) sings his story while playing the accordion. The song is supposed to be funny, but isn’t.
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Elsewhere the brothers bang gongs on large pendulums to play out a simple tune after Newton (Patterson) makes points about the laws of motion. The choreography in this segment is weak.
In general, the brothers are not particularly strong actors. They are street satirists, and when they have to act, they’re in trouble.
Further, the show’s vaunted M.I.T. computer gadgetry proves anticlimactic. Its effects are not put to skillful story or performance use compared with, say, one of George Coates’ high-tech extravaganzas. The musical segments seem amateurish.
Nor is the science part of the script particularly entertaining or insightful. Aristotle (Roderick Kimball), for example, says he made up his scientific theories and didn’t mean them. Is that funny?
There is a simplistic redneck anti-science feel to it all. When Einstein cites two people hugging as an example of gravitational force, you realize that the brothers are unclear on the concept.
Their idea in this show that juggling is behind the mystery of the universe may be true, but when it comes to employing the details of the history of physics and cosmology in their script, the brothers are in over their heads.
"L’Universe," presented by the Flying Karamazov Brothers at Berkeley Rep’s Roda Theater, 2025 Addison Street, through May 19. Call (510) 647-2949, or visit www.fkb.com.