"There's a sucker born every minute."
It's a quote that seeps into my thoughts during the opening night performance of The Acro-Cats at Diversionary Theater in University Heights. The place is packed—my wife and I have to traverse our way to the only empty seats in the back. The audience sits primed on the edge of their seats; nearly everyone wears a pair of cat ears. It's then, after tacitly confirming nothing wrong here, that I realize I'm one of those cat people. Perhaps if the toxoplasmosis hadn't already rendered my brain into a pink sludge of kitty litter, a little awareness of the situation would tell me how far I've fallen into the depths of meowdness.
It's during brief moment of lucid clarity that the "suckers" line pushes through. Attributed to the great showman P.T. Barnum, the quote feels apt not only because we're all here to witness what is essentially a kitty version of the Barnum & Bailey Circus, but also because, well, we are suckers.
We're not suckers just for paying good Ameow'can dollars to see cute cats on stage—we're suckers for being cat people in general. We're suckers for devoting unconditional love to these little beasts who couldn't give any less of a shit about us; who can scratch us, barf, piss on our clothes and know that all will be forgiven after one phony cuddle-sesh.
But, whatever. The moment of introspection is brief. All rational thought disappears as soon as the lights dim and the first cat takes the stage. Her name is Tuna, and she's the star of the Acro-Cats. Good lord, she is beautiful. Imagine if God had a cat—nay—was a cat. An audible gasp escapes the audience as it leans forward to get a better glimpse of what is, in reality, just an ordinary house cat. People whip out their phones to shoot Tuna's picture. I am one of them.
A groundhog scampers onstage and puts his mouth in front of a little groundhog microphone. Over the PA system, a voice—the groundhog's supposedly—welcomes us to the show.
Boo! Get off the stage! I think, while mentally doing the jerk-off motion. Bring out more cats! This ain't a groundhog show.
Samantha Martin, the ringleader, and her two assistants enter the stage wearing spandex and cat ears, instantly earning "cosplaying cat lady" a space on the sadder part of my fetish spectrum. She high-fives Tuna and her assistant holds up a giant cardboard cutout of Tuna and we're all screaming "TUNA!"
Martin introduces us to more cats. There's Asti, Nue, Pudge, Jax and a bunch of others. They're all super cute, but Jax is my favorite. He's "the troublemaker," which appeals to my affection toward troubled cats. Plus he he's black and white like my cat, Harvey (aka Harv D. Cat, aka Harv-Harv, aka Harvard McHarverson Esq.) who is also kind of a dick.
Each cat has a different colored scrunchie around its neck and a tragic origin story. A coyote ate one cat's mom; another cat's mom ate a poison mouse. "Damn," I whisper under my breath.
Martin has fostered all the cats in her show. She trains them and lives with them. She confesses that the set design—an assortment of purple and black colored obstacles, perches and platforms—is her regular living room furniture. "And that's why I'm single!" she shouts. It's supposed to be a joke but we all kind of nod. Makes sense, we think.
Martin has been in charge of the Acro-Cats for a little more than a decade, which I guess is how long it takes to get cats to perform a fraction of what she wants them to. And yes, watching the Acro-Cats is like witnessing controlled chaos. It's a shitshow, honestly. The cats often don't perform their tricks, they wander out in the audience, and at one point, Tuna scratches and bites Martin.
These are the qualities that I come back to when I wonder if attending an Acro-Cats show is supporting animal exploitation. I've never been a fan of watching animals perform for human entertainment. When SeaWorld announced they were doing away with their orca shows, I was stoked. So why do the Acro-Cats seem okay? Why does this show instill so much unadulterated joy in this audience, which is unquestionably, irrefutably made up of cat people?
The show ends with a performance by The Rock Cats, the only cat band in the world (although a chicken joins them, but it's cool because he absolutely kills it on tambourine). Tuna—TUNA!—sits off to the side and works a modified cowbell. The cats pluck a guitar and press their paws into a keyboard. However, there's a technical difficulty and we can't hear any of the amplified instruments. The theater compensates by turning the volume way up, and an overbearing feedback fills the room. Martin and her assistants run around, trying to fix the problem. A schlubby tech guy comes in and pokes his finger into the keyboard. Tuna continues to paw at the cowbell, which, in addition to the overbearing feedback, has become maddening. Asti, the Rock Cats' drummer, decides that she's had enough and abandons the set. Drummers, amiright?
This chaos seems to answer my question whether the show is exploitative. The cats are the ones in control. They'll do the tricks whenever the fuck they want to, or sometimes never. Any cat owner knows the parasitic relationship between felines and humans. We'll clap and love them and rise out of our chairs to give The Rock Cats a standing ovation despite the hellish performance. Because we're suckers.