Russian troupe lets the cat out of the bag

Marusa is the Renee Fleming of Russian cats.

Like the opera star performing in the title role of Massenet’s “Manon” at the Met, this feline has her clique as well: mostly kids, but also the kid inside just about everyone who’s lined up so far to take in the Moscow Cat Theater.

The troupe of 26 visiting cats (and two fluffy obliging dogs) is in town for a limited engagement at the Tribeca Performing Arts Center, with three performances on the weekends. Word is the run will be extended through December.

The event is the brainchild of a former Russian Circus performer who set up his own company, with requisite cats, in 1990. Juri Kuklachev is the epitome of everyone’s favorite clown: wiry and muscular, quick on his feet, with bright eyes, wide cheeks and an even wider smile.

He seemingly speaks no English, as appears to be the case with the other six performers — including his wife, Yelena. His daughter Ekaterina draws delicate illustrations of the cats, which are on sale in the lobby. His son Dimitri has just returned to Moscow to oversee the other 120-odd members of the extended feline theatrical cast.

The performance I caught this past weekend featured the aforesaid Marusa as well as a dozen other high-glossed furballs — several smartly turned out Siamese, a couple of calicos and tabbies and an all-white Persian who could pass for a huge wad of cotton. And as the ticket taker told me, several former alley cats.

They variously pushed and pulled tiny wagons, jumped through hoops, danced to the cucaracha, climbed poles, balanced on balls, rode a wild rocking horse and outdid one another in high-wire pyrotechnics.

Throughout, Kulachev would stroke their backs or tickle their chins, clucking approvingly. At just the touch of his hand, several would stick their beautifully brushed tails straight up, as though a wire ran through them.

Admiration rather than treats seemed to be what turned these cats on.

Only occasionally did one or another cat get sidetracked by some irrelevant prop, or simply decided not to be “on.” It didn’t matter as there was enough of a routine going on, with Hula Hoops, a Pogo Stick, pantomime and slapstick to keep the audience engaged.

Fortunately, the nonstop performance was only 85 minutes, as anything longer would probably have lost easily distracted kids, not to mention create bathroom problems for the kitties.

At times members of the audience were pulled onstage. In one trick eight people had to flatten their backs while a black cat jumped from back to back.

In another, a cat named Belok backed his way gingerly but purposefully across a double tightrope, only to be upstaged by a white cat named Motia who pawed his way underneath the pole using his two front claws.

Even the simplest of routines — like a cat in the pot that continues to jump back inside no matter how many times the lid is taken off — brought chuckles from the audience.

When they’re not performing, the touring cats are housed on their own rented floor in Brighton Beach, a Russian enclave in Brooklyn where presumably their usual diet (caviar? blintzs?) could be maintained. Marusa, the press agent Guido Goetz told me, sleeps with the Kulachevs upstairs.

* * *

A young man carefully stuffed his cloth tote as closely as he could with Dorothy Parker, George Soros, Plato, a Hemingway anthology and more. It likely weighed 35 pounds when he finished.

He was one of thousands Sunday who participated in the Great Read in the Park in the shadow of the New York Public Library. It was organized by the New York Times to celebrate the 70th anni of the paper’s bestseller list.

And one of the pleasures of this all-day literary extravaganza was browsing through the endless racks of “gently used, greatly loved” tomes stacked by category along 41st Street. For $25 you could stuff a bag as fully as possible, with proceeds going to various libraries around town.

Another of the pleasures was catching some of the 150 writers who read from their works, signed copies and in some cases sipped tea with fans.

Some 500 fans stood or sat in rapt silence, for example, while Frank (“Angela’s Ashes”) McCourt read from his upcoming novel “Teacher Man,” about his years as a high school instructor in and around the city.

The Broadway cast of “Wicked” performed numbers from the musical, and actors from “Doubt” read selections from their favorite authors.

A line of children snaked endlessly to get “A Room With a Zoo” signed by its author Jules Feiffer, who seemed to be enjoying it all. That was good to see as well as the kids clamoring to be photographed with Junie B. Jones (“The Stupid Smelly Bus Tour”) or Katharine Holabird (“Angelina Ballerina”) and not, say, Britney Spears. After all, the current literacy level in New York’s public schools is hardly higher than that in California’s.

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