I'm not really a "cat person". I did have a cat, Fiona (she died several months ago); and I like cats, but I don't wear socks with cats embroidered on them, or have a screensaver with kittens sleeping in coffee cups and shoes. However, I've never turned away a good pounce on the lap and a gentle purr. So, my comments about The Moscow Cats Theatre should be taken from the view of an average theatergoer.
The Moscow Cats Theatre has been touring the country for several months after playing to sold-out audiences in New York City. The show is geared to cat lovers, parents and their kids; however I looked at their web-site and thought it might be an amusing afternoon. Besides, The New York Post called the show “Spec-Cat-ular!” and People Magazine called it “Incredible!” With reviews like that I was half expecting The Blue Man Group Meets Cats; my expectations were high. I got the tickets and off we went to beautiful downtown Skokie, Illinois to see the cat circus.
From the start we knew this was going to be interesting. The stage was bedazzled in some cheap looking colored shimmer cloth. To the side was a folding table holding a keyboard and laptop; underneath was littered with cardboard boxes. As people began to file in, children, grandmas all excited by the prospect of the circus cats, the keyboard man pressed a button to start the music.
Now I love pan flute as much as the next guy, but this wasn’t even real pan flute. I know that sound, and it comes with those low-end keyboards that can be purchased at K-Mart for under $150. And the pan flute setting is the second most annoying sound, right beneath synthesized saxophone.
Whoosh….!!! A grey cat ran across the stage, then it ran back followed by a furry white, happy faced dog; the audience screamed in delight at this. "Yes! Now we are in for some real cat action. Bring on those incredible cats!” Another cat ran across the stage followed by another cat; this was followed by another cat, followed by Yuri the Clown, dangling a cat toy, making two of the cats jump at it. I knew at that moment we were in trouble. Yuri is the founder of the Moscow Cat Theatre and is the head cat wrangler. Yuri is not your Emmett Kelly type of clown, in the traditional sense. His long nose is his own, and his blond shag hair is more reminiscent of a middle aged Vivian Vance making a guest appearance on "Here's Lucy", than regular clown hair. But he's still nightmarish. He looked like Jeremy Hilary Boob, the Nowhere Man of “Yellow Submarine” fame, except Jeremy Hilary Boob with blond Vivian Vance hair.
From the start it was clear that this show was not about the cats, but about Yuri, and his need for applause. Repeatedly, he cajoled the audience into clapping in rhythm. “Clap, clap” he mimed as if something was going to happen when we all got a good rhythm going; Which, by the way, was almost impossible to do with the pan flute music. Ultimately, once we all clapped enough, he continued with his next piece of clown business with a drooping flower, doing a floppy shoe stepping dance or acting like he was a painter; pretty dull, standard clown stuff. There were three clowns: the sexy woman clown who looked a bit like Toni Basil of “Mickey” fame. Her big trick was to take a bunch of Hoola-Hoops and swing them around. The third clown’s trick was… come to think of it I don’t think he had a trick; he just seemed annoyed. I’m sure this clown act isn’t any different from any other act seen in let's say…a European shopping mall. The only difference is that those clowns do not have a captive audience who have come to see performing cats.
We were being held hostage and the ransom was "clap for us or no more cat tricks".
Cat-wise, this was pretty much the show: Cats ran across the stage. Cats were pulled by wires on platforms. Cats ran up a pole into a bird house. A cat turned off a light; that was a big hit with the under four crowd. Other highlights included a cat jumping out of an urn and then back in an urn, then back out of the urn; and a cat swiping at Yuri whenever he tried to touch his stomach. A couple of times Yuri brought out cat with a sparkly cloth thrown over it. The bewildered but valiant cat lifted his head up a couple of times and tried to walk around, resigned to its life of show business. "Yes, dinner time is almost here, the purple sparkle cloth has been thrown over my head again." But Yuri just smiled and prompted the audience for applause, when he, to no one's surprise revealed that under the sparkly cloth was ‘gasp’ a cat. The laptop guy started to play the sound of a cat howling as if it were in pain.
The show was just over an hour, but soon into the performance I sensed that the audience had begun to realize it had been rooked. Where were the cat acrobatics? Sure, a cat climbed up the pole into the bird house, and a cat jump onto the pillow trick from about twenty feet, and most impressively a cat doing a handstand. But after a while I had gotten the feeling that something was missing… To quote Peggy Lee: Is That All There Is to a Cat Circus?
Then the show took a bizarre turn with a dream sequence where Yuri dreams that he's being chased by some strange alien/lizard-like creatures. The creatures had giant foam rubber hands that they put down after a couple minutes after 'booga-booga-ing' in front of Yuri. From then on they just wander around aimlessly. Yuri then introduced what I understood later to be the Queen of the Cats. The Queen, in her Walgreen’s Halloween Princess Outfit, swayed and waved her arms around in a lost Ophelia sort of way. I thought, "Is this what all entertainment would be like if we hadn't won the Cold War".
My mind was wandering and I was getting a headache from the continuous synthesized pan flute playing a twenty minute version of “Besame Mucho”, punctuated by a punch- in of maniacal laughter to emphasize that Yuri was having a bad dream.
Also, I noticed that there was much made of things being hot. “Oooh, that light bulb is hot”—“Oooh, that coffee pot is hot; As if in clown school they excelled in playing that ‘something was hot’. I can hear their New York agent "Listen Yuri, stick with the hot stuff, it's what you do best. The kids today, they’ll love that hot bit." But hot or not the show began to lose steam after the dream sequence.
So as in all great shows, it was time for audience participation. I pity people who come to the theatre to enjoy an evening of light entertainment and find that they have to be part of the show. Imagine thinking you were going to spend a relaxing afternoon watching cats jump through hoops and then finding yourself dancing with a clown girl in front of hundreds of people. Try explaining that problem to a therapist. The six men were taken out of the audience, humiliated and then bent over, asses to the audience, as a cat jumped from back to back. At this point the audience was anxious for anything cat related that did not include a cat being pulled across the stage by a wire. It was a hit!
In a strange turn, later on one of the more attractive of these men was pointed out sitting in the front row and accused by Yuri of impregnating the Queen of Cats. The Queen of Cats pointed an accusing finger at him, holding a blanket in her arms, as the laptop guy played a loop of a baby crying. He was handed the blanket and a white fluffy dog jumped out of the bundle. Yuri mussed this guy’s blond hair and pointed to the audience for more applause, gesturing that this man had had sex with the woman and she had given birth to a dog. At that point, I think I was starting to blackout; my head was beginning to throb; The music had turned from pan flute to the ‘ju-ju-ju’ chorus voices setting. Third in the list of horrible keyboard modes. But at that moment I understood why this was a hit in New York. I think that they must have been nostalgic for the days of 80’s Performance Art. I mean, if Annie Sprinkle could look at her vagina in a mirror and pack the house, why not this?
As a finale, the Cat Queen came out riding a bicycle with three cats perched on platforms, as she road around the stage, while Yuri continued to beckon for more applause. He then took a cat that was holding on to a rugged platform and swung it over the heads of people in the first couple rows. The house lights came up and he walked around allowing the cat to be petted as its claws dug unto the perch. Then Yuri walked back on stage and then everyone gave some weak bows; and
that was it!
A smattering of confused applause as people wondered if it was over and then began to file out as if they were leaving church. I was stunned. This was the show that sold out months in New York! Held over! National tour! I left the theatre and noticed that both Lily Tomlin and Kathy Griffin were being promoted for upcoming events. I thought perhaps Kathy Griffin should somehow incorporate cats into her show. Put one in a dress and say that it’s Paris Hilton. Trust me Kathy, it would be a hit.
Needless to say, I’m still a bit stunned. I've wondered, if I had known more about it, would I have decided not to buy the $50 tickets. However, if the show had been better, would I still be thinking about it? This fantastically odd show was worth far more than the money, because it's something I'll never forget as long as I live.