Saturday, Aug. 28, 2010

The Amazing Acro-Cats

The Acro-Cats’ Entertaining Return to Milwaukee

By Russ Bickerstaff
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I remember reading a theory that stated that the domestication of the house cat was something of an unspoken agreement between both parties. Humans didn’t mind cats hanging around because they killed vermin that made life difficult for people. Cats didn’t mind being around people because the vermin that they fed on tended to be attracted to us and our food. Over the years, the relationship between human and cat has gotten quite a bit more complicated, but it’s still essentially the same. A dog is a pet. A cat is a roommate. It’s interesting to see a display of this in the substantially charming, low-budget touring Acro-Cats show. The act passed through town for its second year in a row at the Alchemist Theatre this past Thursday and Friday.

For over a quarter of a century, Chicago-based Samantha Martin has been training animals using simple behavioral techniques. Her website says that, early on in her career, she was known as the “rat lady of Chicago.” Having decided some time ago to actively train cats for a touring performance, Martin is now far better known for her work with cats.

The show begins with a few other animals opening for the cats. There’s a line of rats—a show-stealing chicken we later find out is named “Hendiana Jones.”  Before long the stars come out of their carriers. Cats skateboard. Jump through remarkably small hoops, push tiny shopping carts and so on . . . and for the big finale, the cats get together to play some oddly pleasant atonal music. Pinky plays the guitar. Dakota plays drums Nue plays a toy piano. The band is aided by Tuna on cowbell and the chicken on tambourine. Very cute.

The cats all have very distinct personalities that Samantha has made no attempt to suppress. She shares an apartment with all of them. Occasionally one of them does something interesting. She rewards the cat for the behavior. If the behavior becomes consistent enough, she brings it into the act. There’s a real sense of collaboration between Samantha and the cats that makes the show a lot of fun to watch. Cat’s can respond to more aggressively dominant training, but such acts (the video I’ve seen of the Moscow Cat Circus, for example) rob the stars of their distinctive personalities. An Acro-Cats show may not be perfectly polished and choreographed, but the rough-around the edges feel of an Acro-Cats show lends it the kind of charm that makes it a thoroughly entertaining hour at the theatre.

It doesn’t hurt that Samantha has a charming enough personality to hold it all together. She’s well poised in the center of a casual tempest of furry activity, seemingly un-phased even when the cats do not behave as expected. And the real strength of the Acro-Cats is their ability to entertain when not behaving as expected. A cat jumps from stool to stool. With each jump, Samantha and her assistant raise the stools. Just when the cat is about to jump to the highest possible stool, she glances up, glances down and decides to jump down to the floor instead of going for a triumphant final jump. There is laughter. There is applause. The cat does the complete routine on a subsequent try and the audience erupts with applause again. 

The staging of the show is a bit of a problem in a venue like the Alchemist. Those tricks that are done on the stage floor can be quite difficult for much of the audience to see, as the front of the stage is obscured by the people in the first two rows, but there’s more than enough here that can be seen by the entire audience. Tickets for the Alchemist show were $10. The show is roughly an hour long. It’s not a bad deal for anyone who likes cats.

The Acro-Cats return home to Chicago, presumably today. Their next performance is on September 25th at the Skokie Theatre in Skokie, Illinois. Tickets for that performance are $18 at the door or $15 in advance.       

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