Moscow Cats Theatre: But Can They Sing 'Memory'?
Thirty years ago, Russian circus performer Yuri Kuklachev created the Moscow Cats Theatre after finding an abandoned kitten in a park. It was his goal to prove that cats can be trained to walk tightropes, jump on cue and perform death defying balancing acts. (When a cat performs a death defying act, does that mean he has to do it nine times?) They've been a mainstay of Moscow children's entertainment and have performed in 80 countries across the world.
But despite its name, the show is mostly a silent clown act, with Kuklachev center stage and in the spotlight for most of the hour-long intermission-less performance. (I've seen web postings from audience members saying the show had an intermission and was 80 minutes long. That wasn't the case when I attended.) He performs standard routines like continually stepping on a broom that always winds up hitting him in the back, pretending to be a great artist and painting portraits of audience volunteers or miming umbrella mishaps on a windy day. It's all very cute and suitable for the youngsters, but no more interesting than the average professional clown you might hire for a kid's birthday party.
For the first half of the show the cats (plus a couple of dogs) make rather routine appearances dressed in costumes, pushing carts while walking on their hind legs and being rolled on and off stage on bicycles and hobby horses. It's nice, but it gets a little redundant after a while. Some cats scoot across the stage, climbing up a pole or making leaps at Kuklachev's command. Three more clowns eventually join in with more non-cat routines involving hula hoops, balloons and beach balls being tossed into the audience. There is also some very odd business involving clowns dressed as some kind of creepy dragon-type creature. And the crowd is frequently encouraged to do a lot of rhythmic clapping to the DJ's background music.
As the show moves along, we start to see what is meant by "death defying acts" and some of the stunts become a little disturbing. One cat is placed on a platform attached to two bonded hula hoops and Kuklachev twirls it in the air at high speeds. Another cat is placed at the end of a pole and carried into the audience, allowing anyone to touch and pet it. Another has parallel bars placed under its kitty arms and it shimmies from one end to the other. The difference is that for most of the show the cats perform stunts by following commands, but in these cases, and others, they are placed in situations where they have no choice in the matter. My guest was a life-long cat lover who was very excited to come see cats jump through hoops and do balancing tricks, but she left the theatre repulsed by some of the stunts. I wasn't all that thrilled myself.
I don't want to suggest that there is any mistreatment of the animals. They are frequently petted and shown affection by the clowns throughout the show. But even if they were perfectly comfortable because they've done these tricks a hundred times, they still looked frightened during the more dangerous moments, and it's hard to be entertained by animals whose body language seems to say they don't want to be there.