It's not boot camp at Camp Pendleton. It's the Moscow Cats Theater, whose lead performers, 30 or so felines, are not deprived of sleep and not subjected to verbal abuse like Marines in basic training.
In town for five exclusive holiday engagements at the Wilshire Ebell Theater, these furry creatures are motivated solely by love. Yuri Kuklachev, the artistic director of the theater, cuddles, strokes and coos to his stars. In an e-mail translated from Russian, he says, "I never force a cat to do anything it doesn't want to; it's impossible. I play with them and observe their natural talents (climbing, jumping or tumbling) and build a repertoire around those talents that they enjoy so much."
Kuklachev's show, which had its American debut last year in New York at the Tribeca Performing Arts Center, may not feature the poetry of T.S. Eliot, but, unlike "Cats," the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, it does feature real live tabbies and other breeds.
Broken into nine segments, the Moscow Cats Theater performs numbers such as "Cat's Kidnappers," "Prince and Pauper," and "Queen of the Cats," the latter featuring his wife, Yelena, also a clown and member of the troupe. They hold joint Russian and Israeli citizenship.
For Kuklachev, the idea of working with cats began more than three decades ago when he discovered an ailing stray cat in the streets of Moscow. He washed its eyes with tea until it recovered. Not long after, he realized that he had found his calling. He could incorporate cats into his act as a clown. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, he had studied for four years "at the clownery department" before graduating as a parodist acrobat clown.
To this day, his show is the only one of its kind in the world.
It is not like the circus where lions are tamed and ordered about the big top.
Kuklachev does not try to tame his cats.
As he says, "Cats are marvelous creatures that naturally possess the most basic human instinct of freedom to do whatever they please."
Not only does he not try to tame them, he gives them free reign on the stage and in their accommodations. The cats do not live in cages; instead, they have their own minidressing rooms and they all live together in an apartment.
As for the cats' reaction to stimuli like music (Tchaikovsky is often played), lights and applause, Kuklachev prepares his felines during rehearsals. "I always go through repetitions with loud music, and my human cast members clap during it, so for the cats it becomes second nature and doesn't bother them one bit."
So, why is it we care so much about these sphinx-like creatures with the Mona Lisa smiles?
Kuklachev suggest it is because they are very similar to homo sapiens. "Since Egyptian times, cats have been glorified as a mystical creature; maybe, this is due to their natural inclination to freedom and free will, the most basic human desire."
The Moscow Cats Theater will perform at the Wilshire Ebell Theater, 4401 West Eighth St, on Friday, Nov. 24 at 7 p.m., Sunday, Nov. 26 at 1 p.m and 4 p.m., and Sunday, Dec. 3 at 1 p.m. and 4 p.m.