Jugglers Whose Props Are Just the Beginning

The New York Times

SUNDAY, AUGUST 8, 1999

JUGGLERS WHOSE PROPS

ARE JUST THE BEGINNING

By CINDY MARVELL

WHAT does it take to become the Victor Borge of juggling? You need the skill, the virtuosity, the expertise, the knowledge of the subject, but in the end you really just need to be entertaining.‘ So says Allan Jacobs, the taller half of the Gizmo Guys, Manhattan-based master jugglers who will bring ebullient energy and exquisite skill to the John Drew Theater in East Hampton on Wednesday.

Mr. Jacobs and his partner, Barrett Felker, have performed worldwide, from the Lincoln Center Out of Doors festival to the Singapore Comedy Festival. Their fall schedule includes a stop at the Sagtikos Theater at Suffolk Community College in Brentwood on Nov. 14. On New Years Eve, they are to perform at First Night in Worcester, Mass., and Providence, R.I.

Imagine two people on the same piano,‘ Mr. Felker said of their intricate duet routines, in which the two gyrate around each other, swapping balls, hats and jokes back and forth. A stack of wooden blocks is exchanged from one pair of hands to another with bewildering yet remarkably cohesive percussive effect. Four hands jointly trade and manipulate five yellow balls with the joyful frenzy of a classic vaudeville act. Magic melds with lighthearted fun as Mr. Felker bounces five balls off the stage while the long-armed Mr. Jacobs becomes a supporting windmill, plucking objects out of the pattern and seamlessly replacing them in progressively more bizarre and unpredictable ways.

With a classic juggling act, audiences lose sight of the fact that theres a person onstage because the performer is so proficient,‘ Mr. Felker said. Not so with the Gizmo Guys. At one point, Mr. Felker keeps five pink table-tennis balls aloft by spitting them into the air and catching them in his mouth; perhaps this is what gives him such a wide grin for the rest of the show. Notice the choreography,‘ Mr. Jacobs points out as they effortlessly flick Chinese devil sticks back and forth, circling each other in a dramatic configuration complete with grand plies, toe shuffles and well-orchestrated misdirection.

The partners joined forces in 1987, practicing up to seven hours a day on the Columbia University campus to hone their skills while sharpening their comic timing and interactive style at South Street Seaport on weekends. As individuals, each had already made the trek from street performers to world-class soloists in circuses, clubs and theaters.

A street show could be 20 to 40 minutes, but I was always trying to get a full show,‘ Mr. Jacobs said in an interview at his Manhattan apartment. He won the International Jugglers Championship at the State University College at Purchase in 1983 and went on to perform with Slap Happy, a trio he created with the singer and songwriter Tommy Keegan and Brian OConner of Shining Time Station‘ on PBS. After a successful run at the Other End, a club in Greenwich Village, and an appearance with John Candy on HBOs Young Comedians‘ special, the trio played the Charles Playhouse in Boston to great critical acclaim, then hit the college circuit. But he says longed to team up with another juggler, preferably one even better than himself.

Enter Mr. Felker, who started as a street performer in Boulder, Colo. There, he collaborated with the dancers and jugglers Kezia Tenenbaum and Peter Davison to win the 1980 International Team Juggling Championship as the Magnificent Material Movers. He touring with the Harlem Globetrotters for three years before teaming up with Jim Strinka as the Dynamotion Jugglers in the Big Apple Circus and Circus Krone from Germany. I did the classical acts, but I was still young enough to change,‘ he said of his exuberant solo career.

His character became more multifaceted, as did his skills, which now include the diabolo, or Chinese yo-yo, a prop that reached its zenith in 1910 as the Rubiks Cube of its time. Mr. Felker and Brian Dube, the legendary prop maker and publisher, recently published a diabolo how-to book, for novices and connoisseurs. In the Gizmo act, Mr. Felker spins two Swiss-made, hourglass-shaped diabolos on a string connected to two hand sticks. They loop around his legs and behind his back, popping up toward the ceiling at the flick of his wrist. With Mr. Jacobs, he has learned to find humor in the occasional mishaps inevitable in the gravity- dependent world of juggling.

Recalling his early days in comedy, Mr. Felker said, If something went wrong, I would say, No, thats not funny, thats disastrous.‘ It took considerable coaching from the jocular Mr. Jacobs to achieve a metamorphosis. To cure the nine-object juggler of his serious approach, Allan yelled at me a lot, but I prefer to think of it as working together,‘ he said. We took our natural stage personas and exaggerated them.‘ In their trademark club-passing piece, which hinges on debatably choreographed comebacks and improvised asides, the Gizmo Guys keep up to nine clubs in motion until gravity picks them off and only one remains.

One of Mr. Jacobss favorite solo pieces, The Shadow,‘ revolved around a film of his own shadow performing complexly choreographed variations while he juggled live in the foreground.

I get nervous,‘ he admits, and with this piece I could go out and make a living alone, and not feel like I was alone. It was almost like being a ventriloquist.‘ At the octagonal John Drew Theater, loved by East Hampton residents and artists alike for its tent-shaped striped ceiling, chandelier of glass balloons and popular matinees, there will be no shadows, smoke or mirrors — only human virtuosity with a touch of lunacy.

The Gizmo Guys perform as part of Guild Halls Kidfest on Wednesday at 3 and 5 P.M. in the John Drew Theater, 158 Main Street, East Hampton.