Thursday, Jan. 19th, at Stewart Theatre, The Flying Karamazov Brothers truly took wing in Life: A Guide for the Perplexed, a madcap musical cleverly conceived by Paul Magid (book), Mark Ettinger (music), and Howard Jay Patterson (lyrics) and superbly staged by director Michael Preston. N.C. State University Center Stage, which specializes in introducing Triangle audiences to off-beat entertainers such as these four consummate jugglers and comedians, scored another mega-hit with this completely sold-out show.

Dmitri (Paul Magid), Ivan (Howard Jay Patterson), Alexei (Mark Ettinger), and Pavel (Roderick Kimball) filled the air with clubs and balls, sang and danced and played musical instruments, cracked jokes and royally entertained the NCSU Center Stage crowd, which rewarded their efforts with a hearty standing ovation.

This show’s framing device is that Dmitri is in the throes of a debilitating mid-life crisis and has gone for advice to a mysterious book, written centuries ago in Judeo-Spanish (fortunately, his family’s ancestral language!). The dusty old book, which literally speaks to Dmitri in his hour of greatest need, is a pastiche of suggestions on how to live the Good Life. But mainly it’s an excuse for the fabulous four Karamazovs to fill the air with clubs and balls, which they juggle alone or together with near-supernatural dexterity while various plots and subplots unfold around them.

The book’s revelations are fortune-cookie-type epiphanies; it is the juggling that provides the meat of the show. And, oh, what an electrifying exhibition of juggling The Flying Karamazov Brothers put on. Whether exchanging clubs one-on-one, or arrayed so that one brother fields clubs tossed at varying speeds by each of the other three, the Karamazovs are simply dazzling as they perform on Bliss Kolb’s clever set, which consists of four wooden towers pushed onto the stage when the curtain rises and then maneuvered across the stage and/or opened up to display scenery for a series of comic episodes. Carolyn Keim’s colorful 19th-century Russian-peasant-style costumes and David Hutson’s versatile lighting scheme also enhance the production.

Paul Magid (Dmitri) was delightfully droll, and Howard Jay Patterson (Ivan) was by turns charming and diabolical as he served as Dmitri’s nemesis in his search for the meaning of life.

All the brothers play more than one musical instrument apiece, but Mark Ettinger (Alexei) proved the most adept at entertaining with piano, guitar, etc.; and Roderick Kimball (Pavel) the youngest member of the troupe demonstrated a fine flair for comedy, especially physical comedy, as he galumphed around the stage feigning wide-eyed, slack-jawed confusion at a series of improbable plot developments. My friend Paula says that watching The Flying Karamazov Brothers go through their paces is like watching the Marx Brothers perform their patented act, hurling verbal brickbats at each other, only the Karamazovs play musical instruments and juggle a variety of solid objects with extraordinary ease.

But Paul Magid, the sly elder statesman of the brothers, brought a certain gravitas to the proceedings; and he proved himself to be an extraordinarily skillful and resourceful juggler (as well as a good sport) in the audience-participation segment in which ticket-buyers bring to the stage objects that they think will prove impossible to juggle. Although it took him all three tries allotted, Magid ultimately juggled the princess telephone, slinky, and diabolically designed cardboard box made out of sticky mousetraps tuned inside-out. How he ripped his fingers free from the glue on the box is a greater mystery than the mystery of Life that this whimsical “guide for the perplexed” was supposed to reveal.

N.C. State University Center Stage: The Flying Karamazov Brothers: [inactive 5/07]. Life: A Guide for the Perplexed: [inactive 5/07].