By Raphael Sugarman
Their family history is the stuff of a folksy and surreal novel you don’t quite believe but can’t put down. And never forget.
Nancy, a Midwestern coed with a passion and gift for the piano is introduced to Sam, an erudite, Stanford-educated professor who has come to her Wisconsin college to teach computer science. They attend her teacher’s performance of Chopin’s piano sonata in B minor and though the two are immediately attracted to one another, weeks pass before they make plans to rendezvous.
For their first date, he invites her to a play, whose name is inspired by “The Brothers Karamazov,” Dostoyevsky’s final and highly acclaimed novel about murder and family intrigue. The production Sam and Nancy attend, however, though oddly philosophical in its own way, is hysterically funny, with amazing juggling acts, silly costumes and loads of audience participation.
The professor and pianist have a wonderful time, eventually fall in love, marry and start a family. More than a decade a half later, the same production comes to Seattle, where the couple was then living with their young children, Stephen and Katie. The family attends the show and Stephen is particularly mesmerized. He pledges to one day be a comrade in the production’s four-member cast.
Sam and Nancy nod to their son’s vow with the same skeptical enthusiasm all parents give their 13-year-old kid who vows to join the circus, play centerfield for the Yankees or Red Sox or become a rock star.
But Stephen is deadly serious and unusually talented.
By the time the production returns to town, he has taught himself to juggle five balls and is invited on stage by a cast member to perform to an elated audience. The taste of public response further fuels the boy’s fire.
Five years later, after thousands of grueling hours of practice, Stephen Bent is invited to join the theater group he has so long coveted. And last January, Sam and Nancy Bent, gushing with pride and nostalgia, watched their son perform as a cast member of the same show that once served as the seed of their own love.
“I am sure that they could never really conceive of the idea that it would really happen one day,” said Stephen, who now lives in Woodside. “It must have been totally weird and cool.”
It is more than a little appropriate that this lovely, surreal story is tied to “The Flying Karamazov Brothers,” a “totally weird and cool” production that has a long history in New York and many other cities around the world.
Founded in 1973 by Paul Magid (who still plays Dmitri in the cast of the current show) and Howard Patterson, the ensemble has staged several productions over the past 36 years, all of them encompassing what Magid calls the “Theatre of Everything.”
“It is often been said that theater is the queen of all the arts, as it encompasses architecture, music, dance, poetry, acting, fashion, painting, pandering,” Magid wrote in the Playbill of the current show “4PLAY,” which completes a four week run at the Minetta Lane Theatre in the Village on March 7.
Difficult to be silly
Anyone lucky enough to see “4PLAY” knows that Magid takes this multi-artistic challenge seriously, as do fellow actors Mark Ettinger, who plays the character Alexei, Roderick Kimball, who plays Pavel, and Bent, who plays Zossima.
The shows string of eccentric acts give the audience a glimpse into the enormous rehearsal time — both private and as an ensemble — required to prepare such a production.
In the two-hour production, Bent and his “Brothers” wield mallets to bang out a rhythmical tune, turning various sized cardboard boxes into a kind of urban timpani drums.
Bent sees the dozens of boxes that decorate the stage and serve as a ceiling canopy as symbolic of the economic downturn.
In one of his own many contributions to “4PLAY,” Bent plays the Ukulele in a white cowboy hat after “riding” onstage on a broom fashioned into a horse; plays a piano version of the 1958 hit “Hand Jive”; blows into a flute with his mouth while juggling. In another skit, he wears a red miniskirt, blonde wig and pink top to play the daughter of a “Polish Appalachian Clog Dancer.”
The core and most impressive spectacle of “The Brothers” is their juggling. The audience is wowed not only by the length and complexity of some of their routines, but also the variety of things they juggle, ranging from cleavers and lit torches in established routines, to impromptu juggling of items provided by the audience, such as a full glass of water, a container of coleslaw and a Slinky simultaneously.
“Each toss is a flirtation with failure and each time we catch, we deny failure, if only for a little while,” wrote Magid of the group’s juggling. “Art begins with a choice, an impulse that either fails or flies.”
After seeing “The Flying Karamazov Brothers” for the first time, Bent asked his parents for a set of clubs for Christmas, having already mastered juggling the much simpler and aerodynamic balls. On Christmas morning he vowed to be able to juggle his new clubs 100 times without a single drop by nightfall — a feat he accomplished.
“I think that some people are born to juggle,” said Nancy Bent. “For him juggling came easily. When he was a baby, his first word was not ‘mama’ or ‘papa,’ it was ‘ball.’”
But even the prodigious Bent readily admits that becoming an expert juggler takes hours of practice, as does mastering the many other serious skills to perform in this absurd production.
“Juggling is a physical act that requires mental preparation, a combination of left- and right-brain skills similar to playing a musical instrument,” he said.
He recently graduated from Occidental College in Los Angeles magna cum laude with a degree in music. Since settling in Queens he has joined the St. Cecilia Chorus, which is scheduled to perform at Carnegie Hall in May and the Renaissance Street Singers in Chelsea, among other groups. He also hopes to do some conducting of choral groups.
Bent has also made a point of seeing every Marx Brothers movie and has read all of Shakespeare’s plays as part of his self-imposed training.
He is one of only about 15 performers who have been a Flying Karamazov Brother during the troupe’s tenure of nearly four decades. He hopes to stay with them “indefinitely.”
“As long as I am having fun and the group is successful I can’t see doing anything else,” he said. “I am having a ton of fun and got a job right out of college. I can’t complain.”
Stephen’s dad thinks the gig is perfect for his son’s gentle personality.
“Stephen is not an aggressive person,” said Sam Bent. “He wants people to be happy. He doesn’t want to take advantage of anybody; just take advantage of gravity for a second.”
“The Flying Karamazov Brothers’ 4PLAY” is playing at the Minetta Lane Theatre, 18 Minetta Lane in the Village, through this weekend. For tickets, call (212) 307-4100 or the theater box office, (212) 420-8000.