Sure, it works with dogs. And monkeys and horses, parrots and pigs. But teach a cat tricks? Many cat owners know better; conventional wisdom considers cats to be too independent or too, well, cat-brained, to perform on cue.
The internationally touring Moscow Cats Theatre, which wraps up a short run at the Wilshire Ebell Theatre on Sunday, dispels that notion.
Big and little, longhair and shorthair, tabby and tortoiseshell, Persian and Burmese. Thirty adorable fur balls -- and two curly canines -- are integrated into a family-friendly clown show with the rustic charms of a provincial European circus: a slight, unspoken theatrical narrative, broad humor, a dash of sentiment, music, mime bits and acrobatics, the last provided mostly by cats.
Artistic director Yuri Kuklachev, the show's energetic star and creator of the company, is backed by his wife, Yelena, and two other comic cast members playing dolls that come to life.
When the clowning goes catless for too long, though, interest flags a tad. The novelty of these remarkably unperturbed feline actors -- the company's philosophy is training through kindness -- is the clear draw.
Cats run and stroll onstage seemingly without overt commands. They swing on platforms suspended from a high wire, pop through the curtains, appear on shelves and in boxes. In a continuing gag, cats streak across the stage chased by one of the little dogs, who is pursued in turn by more cats. Now and then, cats race out from the wings, climb a tall pole and disappear into a birdhouse.
Elsewhere, they steal scenes by just sitting around, like the big calico beauty that not only has mastered "stay" but owns it. Even when Kuklachev's antics are front and center, many eyes are on the furry hambone that's lounging on a platform, stretching, enjoying luxurious cheek rubs and surreptitiously poking kitties that pass by.
Yes, there are showier tricks. Cats leap onto Kuklachev and across the backs of audience volunteers. Cats pop out of kettles and teapots, walk and hop on their hind legs, do a paw stand in Kuklachev's palm.
One lies on its back and juggles a ball. One sneaky little comedian repeatedly turns on a light. Others pull wagons or push carts.
One even moves props: After Kuklachev balances himself one-handed on the head of a sturdy puppet, a kitty walking upright pushes the puppet off stage.
During the show's entire opening night, through loud balloon pops and audience roars, only the furry performer required to climb the highest pole and make the longest jump appeared to have second thoughts about a showbiz career. Before the reluctant acrobat took the plunge, its meow of protest needed no interpreter. "You've got to be kidding" came through loud and clear.
Moscow Cats Theatre
Where: Wilshire Ebell Theatre, 4401 W. 8th St., L.A.
When: 1 and 4 p.m. Sunday
Price: $49.90 and $57.90
Contact: (213) 365-3500, www.ticketmaster.com; www.moscowcatstheatre.com
Running time: 1 hour, 15 minutes