Motion and Commotion

The New York Times

SUNDAY, APRIL 11, 1999




EXPERIMENT: hold a ball out in front of you at arms length. Drop it. Now, try to catch it with the same hand before it hits the floor.

If you anticipate the forces of gravity swiftly enough to catch the ball, you are a good candidate to see Michael Moschen in On the Shoulders of . . .‘ at the McCarter Theater next week. If, on the other hand, you miss the ball but devise a clever song about it that makes your friends laugh hysterically, grab your kazoo and head for the Flying Karamazov Brothers’ presentation of Sharps, Flats and Accidentals.

Though legendary as jugglers, the two companies have come to symbolize the splits — acrobatic and philosophical — in the field of new vaudeville‘ since its rise in the late 1960s and early 70s, when Mr. Moschen first encountered the Karamazovs at a jugglers’ get-together in San Francisco. He remembers passing clubs with Tim Furst, the silent Karamazov, after discovering that they lived in the same apartment house a few blocks from Haight-Ashbury.

Were the greatest opposites you could find,‘ Mr. Moschen said in a telephone interview last week from his present base in Cornwall, Conn., but there are two major differences between us: they have longer beards, and Im a recluse.

Their itineraries read like a novel titled East Meets West.‘ Mr. Moschen grew up in Greenfield, Mass., the small town where, as a teen-ager, he entered an unlikely collaboration with his schoolmate Penn Jillette (juggling spitballs?). The four, sometimes five, Karamazovs, some of whom met as students of perpetual motion at the University of Santa Cruz in California, now reside in Seattle (their original farmhouse-studio-theater in Port Townsend, Wash., has become a bed-and-breakfast) and Hawaii, where they are currently performing and visiting their hippie abode at a jugglers‘ commune in Maui. They have just completed a tour in the Netherlands and Berlin.

Even those unfamiliar with new vaudeville‘ have probably seen both acts on the screen. The Karamazovs appeared alongside Avner the Eccentric in The Jewel of the Nile‘ in roles ranging from the pivotal (a knife-wielding assassin) to the percussive (culinary cacophony with pots and pans) to the perilous (juggling, eating and walking on fire). Rock-and-roll fans may be shocked to learn that Mr. Moschen did the juggling for David Bowie in the film Labyrinth; he also juggled torches in Annie.‘ Both have made PBS specials.

The Karamazovs’ productions have titles like Juggling and Cheap Theatrics,‘ their immensely popular, Obie Award-winning show, or Juggle and Hyde,for which they were nominated for an Olivier Award after a London run. Mr. Moschens pieces have titles like Light, S-Curve Dances, Sticks and ”Vectors.

Mr. Furst began his Russian odyssey as the Karamazovs’ technician after graduating from Stanford University, running lights and sound and building props for the founding members, Paul Magid (Dmitri) and Howard Patterson (Ivan). The first time he joined the brotherhood onstage, it was only for one act: after materializing from the light booth, he ran through some passing patterns with silent dignity, then disappeared into the background. The trio received many compliments on the virtues of silence, and Fyodor was born.

Having found names in the Dostoyevsky novel (Rakatin, played by Michael Preston, will be the fourth Karamazov at the McCarter), the troupe had trouble finding audiences sophisticated enough to comprehend its jokes. Still, its popularity grew, fueled by intricate ensemble juggling and delightful groaners.

Back in the 60s they were performing at outdoor events like the Oregon Country Fair in Eugene. It was a lot harder to get booked then,‘ Mr. Furst recalled. Juggling, to most people, meant circus and childrens shows.

Once they took the stage at the Goodman Theater in Chicago with their own rendition of Shakespeares Comedy of Errors,‘ they never relinquished it. When the show repeated its sold-out run at Lincoln Center Theater in New York, nobody could deny that vaudeville was making a comeback, big time.

“If juggling is rhythm and rhythm is music, then juggling is music,‘ Mr. Patterson says. The Karamazovs play their own music, whether as a traditional chamber orchestra (if you consider Peter Schickele traditional) or when juggling marimba mallets or clubs with sleigh bells fastened on (particularly effective for renditions of the Mission Impossible‘ theme in the key of C, for chaos). Mr. Moschen performs to experimental instrumental music by David Van Tieghem, with choreography by Janis Brenner.

Mr. Moschen has always been in a class by himself. Other jugglers make objects agitate; he makes them levitate. Hoops, sticks, even a tetrahedron appear to float through his fingers and above his undulating, open hands. I made a rule that I would never close my hands around the object, and this led me to a new technique,‘ he said in 1992 at the International Jugglers’ Convention in Montreal.

In the early 80s, he was performing a lighthearted three-ball routine and spectacular fire-swinging finale as an original cast member of the Big Apple Circus. Seeking simplicity and isolation, he withdrew to a rustic studio in Vermont, far from the circus crowds. There, he laid down the law and kept his hands open, learning to slide them under, over and around a set of crystal balls purchased at a drugstore.

It was the first time my instincts kicked in and drove me to create a whole new technique,‘ he said. It was my first powerful creation experience.‘ When he caught a crystal ball on his forehead and balanced it as he knelt down and stretched out on his back, gazing intently at the sphere amid an invisible field of dreams, he took juggling into a new dimension.

If there is one old-vaudeville performer with a broad enough talent and scope to have influenced both, it was Bobby May, the consummate American juggler from Cleveland, a pioneer of the technique known as head rolls, in which balls roll around a jugglers head, chin and neck. In his arm-stretching three-ball routines and leg-lunging club acts he might have been the first juggler to combine modern forms of dance and movement with inventive technical juggling. He also had musical leanings, bouncing five balls off a drum while standing on his head and playing “Yankee Doodle‘ on the harmonica. Although Mr. Moschen cites May, who died in 1981, and the former Ringling and Big Apple Circus juggler Francis Brunn as his inspirations, he has largely been left to find his own path.

A compulsive risk-taker who works on the edge, Mr. Moschen is the second new-vaudevillian to have been awarded a MacArthur fellowship. (The first was Bill Irwin.) Despite his early success in Foolsfire,‘ a collaboration with the physical comedians Bob Berky and Fred Garbo, there are some who find Mr. Moschen a puzzling anomaly in a free-spirited profession. As he deftly rolls or spins a leaf-shaped object he calls the teardrop around his body, the physical properties of nature unfold. Substituting quiet intensity and almost mystical concentration for piquant flamboyance, Mr. Moschen gradually weaves his way into the heart and mind.

If you attend the International Juggling Festival at Niagara Falls this summer, you may see Mr. Moschen and Mr. Furst recreating their early forays in club- passing. You might see Mr. Furst temporarily on his own, kicking up clubs with his foot or recounting his adventures on the open road. If you sneak down to the basement, you may see Mr. Moschen rehearsing with a mystery object he describes as simple yet complex,‘ and seeking out new collaborations and branches to hang them on, if, as he says, I can just hang in there long enough to clone myself.‘ His future, as always, depends on the shapes of things to come.

FLYING KARAMAZOV BROTHERS McCarter Theater 91 University Place, Princeton Thursday to 8 P.M.

John Harms Center for the Arts 30 North Van Brunt Street, Englewood Friday at 8 P.M.

MICHAEL MOSCHEN McCarter Theater April 20 at 8 P.M.