October 23, 2009

Play 'em off, Rock Cats: Acro-Cats celebrate feline fancy

The audience waits in muted anticipation, anxious to witness the performers whose musical and acrobatic reputation has permeated Chicago’s underground scene. The stage is a chaotic combination of Halloween decorations and sundry props: Plastic pumpkins, rubber balls, bowling pins, and an abandoned drum set perched haphazardly on a dusty ledge. Samantha Martin, the ringleader of the show, wears a handmade headband of glittery cat ears and, with a dramatic gesture, reveals her first performer: A rat, ceremoniously followed by a chicken, a groundhog, and a ferret-like kinkajou. Her troupe of cats, the main performers of the night’s events, wait nearby for their own worthy introduction.

All of this ceremony is part of the Amazing Acro Cats show, which was conceived by Martin three years ago. Inspired by her cat Tuna, Martin thought that it would be an interesting, albeit daunting, challenge to train domestic cats—known for their stubbornness—to perform acrobatic feats. Of course, she couldn’t simply leave behind her other trained animals from her past animal shows—they all still participate in the acrobatics.

“I started working with animals over 25 years ago,” Martin noted. “As you can imagine, my parents weren’t too pleased with me using my college degree to pursue a career in working with rats. But the business grew, and I eventually became known as the Rat Lady of Chicago. Then I realized that rats weren’t exactly the most popular pet, so I switched to cats.”

Nowadays, her shows are frequent occurrences, sometimes happening five times a week. The performance itself is more an experience than a display of practiced perfection, and the constant stream of “awwws” from the audience is a critical component of the act. The show itself consists of two separate performances, the first being a circus-like acrobatic display in which the cats and other animals perform such awe-inspiring tricks as pushing a toy car on two legs or giving Martin a high-five. The undisputed highlight of this section was the breathtaking balancing act of Tuna, who walked on a ball across two thin metal rods suspended four feet above the stage.

As Martin often explains during the act, it takes constant, thorough training to get cats to do anything, let alone circus tricks. Some of the 13 cats in the show were found in wooden crates ditched on the side of a road, and others were taken from underfunded shelters across the nation. The same goes for the other animals. Martin has under her care a plethora of pets, all of them residing in her home, where she painstakingly house-trains each of them.

While usually relaxed and congenial, the show and its performers are certainly not without their melodramatic moments. The cats range from a newly adopted kitten to the fully matured and confident Tuna and often venture into the audience unannounced, or decide to slowly stretch in the limelight rather than jump through the hoop placed before them. The performance’s saucy star Fiji had several on-stage tiffs with both Jet, one of the newest and smallest additions to the show, and Nue, a talented veteran. Martin complements this often temperamental nature of her performers with a self-deprecating tone, rebutting a cat’s refusal to perform with witty banter and a lighthearted mood. In a particularly savvy flourish, Martin took Tuna, who was engaged in a vicious battle with Fiji, and cajoled her into participating in both a bowling and bell-ringing competition with Hendiana Jones, the sole chicken of the show.

The act ascends to a whole new level of cat crazy in the second portion: A Rock Cats performance where several distinguished members of Martin’s cat family play musical instruments together. Among the musicians, the most notable are Dakota on the drums and Nue on the synthesizer, although guitarist Pinky also displays some level of treat-induced competence. While their “music” sounds like a hurricane passing through a Guitar Center, the scattered, sloppy beats and loopy, dissonant keyboards possess a certain appeal, which is mostly derived from the fact that the kittens are, in every sense of the word, adorable.

It’s clear from the animals’ interactions that they are accustomed to sharing the spotlight, but Martin maintains that “They’re all very different personalities, from how they interact with each other to what they eat. Some are social, some prefer their own space. Pinky loves cookie dough, Dakota likes steak, but steak makes Tuna throw up. They all love the mackerel, though.”