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Gregory Popovich: The World of Acrobatic Cats and the Allure of the Sad Circus

Gregory Popovich: The World of Acrobatic Cats and the Allure of the Sad Circus

You could call me a pet lover, I suppose. Having grown up with two dogs (one quite neurotic, one an attention hog) and an obsession with seeing moose (first successfully spotted in NH last September!), I am a bit of a glutton when it comes to animal entertainment. The “Growing Up…” series on the Nature Channel made me grin, and I admit to certain desires to peep through the gates at nice retrievers near my street. I love animals. But I had yet to fully investigate their talents until I watched a touring production of The World Famous Popovich Pet Comedy Theater at Patriots Theater at the War Memorial. This stuff’s not about pets, you see. This is about something deeper and more mysterious – something involving, well, tight ropes. And plates. Burning houses. Trains.At first the concept sounded strange. Images of unhappy circus elephants popped into my head. Then I learned that this show features rescued animals. Perhaps their talent belies hidden pasts. This seemed more promising.

Gregory Popovich’s show is a mix between a somewhat ordinary circus, a dream about clowns, a petting zoo, and straight-up Vaudeville. While sitting in the audience, one can fall victim to the cuteness and utterly shocking calmness of an orange tabby sitting on a posh and well-dressed man’s shoulder, trying to sell a book about training cats.

When the show starts, a spotlight flashes in and out as the curtains peep open just a tiny bit, just to reveal a microphone, and a Golden Retriever runs up to the mic to welcome the audience in what I can only call a human voice. (This dog could sell me Beggin’ Strips.) Then comes the train scene, in which all the animals must jump on in time. They go in and out of holes, with some dogs as drivers.

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Later on, we learn that a house is on fire, and boxers help rescue cats from inside the 2D residence. Dachshunds fall from the windows wearing overalls that act like parachutes, as bigger dogs and Popovich himself help to catch them.

The West Highland Terriers jump a lot; the Dachshunds sure know how to fall; and, when it comes to the cats, they hide quite a bit, much like normal house cats. All seems fine and dandy, tightrope scene included, until it’s time for Gregory Popovich himself to talk to the audience about his history. He tried to be a good Russian clown, you see, but the other clowns and dancers kept making fun of him. We see him try; we see him fail. We see the make-up drip off of his face.

The show becomes one of those strange mixes between the expectedly unfamiliar and the unexpectedly unfamiliar. Popovich’s own talents include catching plates, walking ladders with no support, and, of course, interacting with animals. During one sad scene, having been belittled by other clowns, he finds himself asleep on a park bench in the snow (a cat upon the lamppost), when an Airedale curls up on the bench with him. This endearing pet stuff is only the beginning of a surprisingly dramatic tale of a clown who just can’t make it. He ends up trying to retaliate against the Russian “others” in the circus, throwing buckets of water on the tops of their heads.

In the audience, I found myself a little bit afraid (not for myself, but for poor Popovich). Somehow, this pet comedy had turned into something quite sad – sad not due to strangeness but in spite of it.

The animals do return, and Popovich proves his talent over and over again, but in the end this is less a story about the dog who helps deliver newspapers (look at him throw!) and more a story about the clown who just needs a little attention and ends up redeeming himself through the pet circus.

Now, I must reveal, at this point, a fact about myself: I went to circus camp as a kid. Walking on stilts and balls seems familiar to me. But this Russian pet circus is something else altogether. If you’re unprepared, just expecting to see a happy-go-lucky M.C. introducing talented pets, just be aware that this story takes a deep, dark turn. And if you’re scared of clowns or foreign accents? Just focus on the fuzzy cats.

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You can catch The World Famous Popovich Pet Comedy Theater at Count Basie Theatre on May 20 in Red Bank! I recommend going and giving it a try. The animals will amuse and delight you with their ability to maneuver their bodies according to the Russian clown’s subtle reminders. (And it’s simply adorable when they fail to jump high enough and have to try again.) Even the swans and parrots have unforgettable voices. But be ready for a wild ride full of macabre stories of professional disappointment and lonely nights.

Let me know your thoughts. Are these rescued animals as talented as they seem? Is the circus as unforgiving as Popovich lets on? Will you be buying the How to Train Your Cat DVD? This circus certainly is a place of intrigue and a reason for conversation! And psst: an elephant does appear… sort of.

Singer-Songwriter Josh Ritter

Singer-Songwriter Josh Ritter

John Dias, Artistic Director, Two River Theater Company

John Dias, Artistic Director, Two River Theater Company