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A mad hatter helps Moscow's cats land on their feat


February 7, 2006

Cats are by nature too cool for the room; they're barely likely to come when called, let alone do tricks.

Which must make Yuri Kuklachev, clown impresario of the Moscow Cats Theatre, one of the hardest-working men in show business. Watching him coax reluctant felines into feats of jumping, running, climbing and pushing provides the central suspense, and the main attraction, in the long-running circus-style show, now at midtown's Lamb's Theatre.


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Surrounding the fun cat tricks, though, are some of the more bizarre, amusement-proof clowning sequences I've ever seen, performed by Kuklachev and a small clown troupe on a stage styled like a nightmare playroom, to the accompaniment of a blaring synthesized score.

Kiddies may eat up these Day-Glo antics with a techno beat, but the rest of us will probably identify with the cats who can be seen lounging regally, and indifferently, on perches at the back of the stage, each waiting with unfazed magnanimity for a cue.

Kuklachev is savvy enough to work his divas' resistance into the act. One white-and-orange charmer named Ksyusha seems primed to scratch her keeper at every turn, while a larger specimen appropriately named Whitie can barely be bothered to do a simple promenade trick.

At these and other moments of performative stress, the otherwise impishly smiling Kuklachev takes on the serious concentration of a mad sorcerer working his fingers around his charges. We can hardly be unmoved, then, by his unseemly, wild-eyed glee when they do exactly as rehearsed.

But hey, they always land on their feet, right?

Some cat lovers may have trouble watching the show's more gravity-defying stunts, and they may frown at a running theme of confinement - cats in bags, under wrapping paper, in a samovar.

Cat partisans (you know who you are) may relish the brief, groveling appearance of a poodle-like dog, who slavishly and stupidly endures the humiliation of wearing an absurd costume while standing on his hind legs. The cats must endure some cutesy poses, too - at the wheel of a little car, in a strange ball gown - but their aplomb and dignity is never in doubt.

Feline willfulness is strongest in Kuklachev's prize feline, a black-and-white bruiser named Marusya, who pushes carts, does handstands, and generally looks immune to frivolity.

The show's best moment conveyed much the same self-possession, and made a startling case for these animals as theatrical performers rather than circus freaks: A large tan cat squeezed through a treehouse door, clambered down a pole, and crossed the stage.

As an actor, the cat was totally in the moment We could have been watching a cat on a backyard fence. Then, to applause, the cat threw an over-the-shoulder glance - partly the nod of an entertainer acknowledging an audience, and partly the familiar feline stare that says unmistakably, it's their world, and we're just living in it.

MOSCOW CATS THEATRE. At the Lamb's Theatre, 130 W. 44th St., Manhattan. Open-ended run. 8 p.m. Wednesday-Friday; 2, 5 and 8 p.m. Saturday; 3 p.m. Sunday. Tickets: $45-$65. 212-239-6200. Seen Friday.

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