When the World Cup takes a day off, why not visit Moscow's Cats Theatre?

MOSCOW -- Rest days at the World Cup are a bit of a blank canvas. The players, obviously, rest. But for fans and media, there are lots of options, especially here in Russia's capital. Some will go to Red Square or the Kremlin, others to Gorky Park or the Arbat.

I went to the Moscow Cats Theatre.

If that sounds strange to you, well, it should. It was weird.

From the outside, the cat theater looks like any other building in Moscow, save for the giant stone cats that are perched beside its front door. Inside, there is a lobby with cats painted on the tiled floor (a security guard helpfully informed me that each one has a different name) that leads into a steeply pitched theater that holds about 200 people.

The shows put on at the cat theater feature -- wait for it -- cats. The theater is run by a man named Yuri Kuklachev, and it is a true family business: Yuri has his own show and troupe of cats, as do each of his three children. The four Kuklachevs take turns, generally one month at a time, performing their specific show at the theater.

This month's show was from Vladimir Kuklachev, one of Yuri's sons. When I asked Vladimir, who has a burly build, a giggly smile and shocks of curly hair, to describe his show, he said: "It's new. It's never been done before. I made a mix of ballet with clowning and circus and cats."

He then quickly added, "But No. 1 is cats."

To be sure, the cats are the stars. On the theater's website, there is a page dedicated to the "actors with tails" that includes pictures of the cats in action. Shpuntik is the white cat who climbs a rope; Banana is darker and eats bananas. Zuhel and Fifa ride in a basket. Appendicitis -- check for yourself if you don't believe me -- performs on a ladder.

(Full disclosure: In addition to the cats, there are also a few dogs involved.)

While performing, the cats live at the theater, upstairs from the main stage in a room that is known as the "temple" and is behind two doors that have a sign saying "Staff Only" on them. Inside, there are large glass cages jutting out from both walls with a thin aisle down the middle. The cats live together and have room to move around; an attendant is there to feed them and make sure no one has any problems. Everything was clean and neat when I visited.

There have been, not surprisingly, concerns from animal rights groups about the cat theater. There are occasional protests about the shows, and Kuklachev reportedly won a defamation lawsuit several years ago against a group that had written internet posts claiming he was abusing cats.

Vladimir said, several times, that the difficult part of working with cats is that they cannot be trained -- "Sometimes, they just see a person in the audience they don't like and that's it; they won't perform that day" -- and that he considers the cats his "children."

"Working with cats is about building relationships," Vladimir said. "Dogs, or other animals; maybe you can train them. With cats, they have to trust you. Every day, it is an improvisation."

Yana Melnikova, a ballerina who performs in the show (along with the cats), said she believes the cats "actually miss it when they don't perform.

"When they retire, you can see that they miss their friends," she said.

The show itself is charming. About 80 people, most of them children, showed up for the late-afternoon performance. In it, Vladimir plays a clown who is quite entertaining at first -- he drops his coat, but his hat falls off when he goes to pick it up and a maddening cycle ensures -- and then goes to sleep for the night. His dream, which includes lots and lots of cats, apparently, is what plays out on the stage for the rest of the performance.

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The cats are impressive. They run, jump, climb, ride on plastic vehicles and walk tightropes, among other things. They are also nominally involved in a few dance routines with Yana, the human dancer. Several cats wear costumes, though, as Vladimir suggested, it was clear that not all of the cats were particularly interested in following the script on this particular day.

One cat kept hopping off its podium when it was supposed to stay put, and several cats just ran off stage (and then back on again and then back off again) in the middle of otherwise finely choreographed routines.

Vladimir was not bothered by his performers' erratic temperaments: "On all of planet Earth, cats are the most graceful. The movements are so beautiful."

At the end of the show, everyone headed into the lobby, where many of the kids clamored to purchase cat souvenirs (there were lots of small figurines), as well as non-cat-related chocolate candy.

Vladimir said part of his motivation for doing a show like this is that in Russia, children are not allowed to go to the famous Bolshoi Theater to see the opera or ballet until they are 12. At the cat theater, all ages are welcome.

"I want to make a better place, for you and for me," Vladimir said, fully acknowledging that he was (somewhat oddly) quoting Michael Jackson. "I try to find my way. I don't know which way to go. I come here. And this is my way, my purpose."

He smiled and nodded: "Cats and the circus and the theater and the ballet. All together."