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Yuri Kuklachev and Banan

Yuri Kuklachev and Ksusha

All images and text © Nina Roberts

Times Square’s
Moscow Cats Theatre

May, 2006

No longer the mad, 24-hour carnival of vice-seeking oddballs it used to be, New York City's Times Square has successfully been Disneyfied by the powers that be. Over the past decade, massive chain stores, aggressively family-friendly restaurant franchises and herds of slow moving tourists have replaced freak shows, porno establishments, cheap smoke shops and their respective clientele. But on West 44th Street, just half a block east of the new Times Square, a curious yellow sign hangs from the weather beaten Lambs Theater awning. It reads: Moscow Cats Theatre. Unbeknownst to this Russian import, they are doing their small part to help restore Times Square to its bygone glory days.

The Moscow Cats Theatre is in its 7th month of performing the surreal 20 cat, 1 dog, 5 human spectacle. From afar, it may appear to be just another show for the current edge-free Times Square, tickets are purchased through the behemoth Telecharge and prices are the equivalent of 25£ or 36£, average for off Broadway. But when theatergoers step into the rundown Lambs Theater, they will experience an altogether different kind of show, putting any type of performance art happening in the nether regions of Williamsburg to shame.

On a recent Saturday night, as the audience of suburban families, stereotypical theater types in fur coats and a sprinkling of hipsters settle into their seats, the house goes dark. Deafening Russian disco blares from speakers as a spotlight follows a nonchalant tabby cat lying atop a remotely operated model Hummer as it zigzags its way across the stage, causing riotous shrieks of laughter from the audience's younger members. An elfin clown makes his grand entrance perched on a little cart being "pushed" from stage left by a cat on his hind legs, a discrete wire helping. This clown in a red top hat is Yuri Kuklachev, the mastermind behind The Moscow Cats Theatre. With a backdrop of primitive, homemade sets, 1 of 20 straight faced cats proceeds, among other tricks to: push a dog in a pram, pounce and cling onto Kuklachev's chest, emerge from a samovar, or stand patiently on hind legs atop a disco ball while it's adorned with a cat-sized Russian gown and headpiece. Several "pawstands" are performed and cats glide across the stage in intervals, calmly resting on mini trams hanging from cables. At one point a siamese shimmies its way forward on a set of cat-proportioned parallel bars using only his armpits as his hind legs dangle.

In between the cat acrobatics, Kuklachev and his 4-person troupe that includes his wife Elena, perform their own dreamy, non-verbal, human dramas, making the cat acts pedestrian by comparison. The music is composed of standard, synthesized drumbeats, and blasts ear damagingly loud. There is a Who's The Father of the Illegitimate Baby scenario that ends with a dog springing out of the swaddling, a faux-dead cat bit, and a curious scene that involves 2 actors sporting metallic jumpsuits and creepy lime-green, crocheted, alien-elephant heads. After Mr. and Mrs. Kuklachev's courting scene with biomorphic dancing to New Age music, Kuklachev's wife rides her adult sized tricycle around the stage, looking like a wedding cake on wheels as her puffy fairy princess dress is somehow one unit with her tricycle that also has 4 cats on platforms grafted onto the back. The homespun show is jarringly captivating, bizarre, and the lack of technology is so noticeable that it could make the most cynical, luddite New Yorker realize how much they've acclimated to today's world of slick entertainment.

The house lights brighten after the show and the visibly jazzed children bounce around the aisles while the adults silently collect their coats. "That was like a bizarre dream," comments Jenny Pfister, slightly shaken, despite being a self diagnosed cat person, "but it was real." Audience member Jean Borrie is overheard saying, "I want to do something normalnow. Like go see a Sandra Bullock movie or something."

Yuri Kuklachev, 57, is a household name in Moscow. Sitting in one of the Lambs Theater's empty seats before a matinee in his clown tux, pancake make-up and lipstick, Kuklachev explains through an interpreter about his life as a cat-wielding clown. Cats have been part his clown repertoire since 1975, the year he joined The Moscow Circus. He toured the world with his felines, winning prizes from Canada to Monte Carlo, always accompanied by KGB agents during Soviet times. "They had to let me go," says Kuklachev of the Soviet government allowing him to travel, "I was the only one who could do what I do with cats in the world." In 1989, Kuklachev broke off from the circus and created his own theater in Moscow devoted exclusively to cat-centric productions. "Everybody was searching for their own thing at that time," he says, as the USSR was breaking up, "I found my way with cats."

The obvious question, posed countless times to Kuklechev, is how does he train the notoriously independent and uncontrollable cat? Kuklachev's method, the one he's used with the 300 cats that have passed through his life: love. "If you truly love the cat, they feel it," says Kuklachev, "and they trust you with their 9 lives." Kuklachev seems he'd rather be doing some last minute rehearsing than talk about himself, but continues, "I don't train them per say, I observe them. I see their natural inclinations and figure out how I can utilize it into a trick on stage." He gives the example of one cat who simply enjoyed being inside a cooking pot in his kitchen, now a staple trick in his show. When asked how the "pawstand" evolved, Kuklachev speaks in rapid fire Russian and stands up as if to signal the interview is over. The interpreter shrugs his shoulders and says, "It's a company secret."