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Juggling? Comedy? Call it 'nouveau vaudeville'

Take four jugglers, two cats, half a dozen sickles, a thousand outrageous puns, and a cardboard cannon.

Add a long list of equally random objects, making sure each one can be thrown , caught, bounced, lobbed, struck, balanced, or climbed into. Throw in dashes of song and story, and cook with more energy than you've seen all year.

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What have you got? The Flying Karamazov Brothers - a quartet of ''nouveau vaudevillians'' who have concocted the funniest, liveliest, most unpredictable entertainment of the season.

The Flying Karamazov Brothers are honest fellows. They are the first to admit that they do not fly, they are not brothers, and none of them are named Karamazov.

What they do is juggle and talk, at the same time. For variety, they play a little music. It's not a fancy act. But it's a hilarious one, and - when the juggling takes over from the joking - an astonishing one. For laughs, suspense, and various combinations of the two, there hasn't been a show like this in a very long time.

So where have the Karamazovs been all these years? Traveling from town to town, participating in ''Chautauqua''-type carnivals in the Northwest, and refining their routine before a wide range of audiences. Their recent run at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (cosponsored by the Dance Theater Workshop) was only their second in New York, although they have captured the hearts of critics and spectators, and will surely be back. Plans include an engagement in Seattle (Nov. 3-21) and a stint in a special new production of Shakespeare's ''Comedy of Errors'' at the Goodman Theater in Chicago beginning in late January.

What makes the Karamazovs special is the enormous skill, vigor, and humor they use in bringing theater back to its roots. There is little artifice to their act; everything happens right before your eyes and ears, whether it's bowling pins or wordplay whizzing back and forth across the stage. One long section is completely improvised, as the ''brothers'' strike a wager with the audience: If they succeed in juggling any three objects thrown onto the stage, the reward will be a standing ovation.

Other portions seem equally loose, even if they are planned in advance. It's probably as close to the classic ''commedia dell'arte'' as contemporary stagecraft ever gets. And it works gloriously, uproariously well.

I don't want to give away too many surprises, so I won't describe my recent afternoon with the Karamazovs. It would be hard, anyway: How do you sum up a show that includes a routine from a Tom Stoppard comedy, the ritual sacrifice of a Big Mac, a few amiable jabs at the White House, and a rapid-fire skit that closes with James Cagney hissing, ''You dirty brother, you killed my rat!''? Not to mention a burst of swordplay, a flash of strobe-lit psychedelia, a musical session that mixes juggling and jamming, and too much else to remember, much less list.

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Suffice it to say that the children in the crowd were as enthralled as their parents, and that a spendid time was had by all. At one point, the brothers broke into a furious argument about whether juggling is an art, a trick, or a science. Calling on their college educations, they finally settled the matter by deciding it's ''the art of tricking people into thinking it's a science.'' Which is another way of saying ''something for everyone'' - just what the Karamazovs exuberantly provide.

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