PITTSFIELD -- It's every actor's dream. First-class accommodations on the road and at home; roles that are tailor-made for individual talents; above all, job security for life
It's just that the actors in Gregory Popovich's itinerant theater troupe are not your typical performers. Oh, sure, five of them -- Popovich and four jugglers and acrobats from the Moscow Circus -- move on two legs and are made of flesh and bone. But the rest of Popovich's ensemble, most of them, that is, are four legged and made of fur and bone -- 14 house cats and 12 dogs -- all rescue animals. They are the heart and soul of Popovich's Comedy Pet Theater, which will be playing Berkshire Theatre Group's Colonial Theatre Tuesday afternoon and evening.
Complementing the 26 canines and felines are two parrots, five white mice and one dove. Taken together, they redefine sketch comedy. No bowling pins balanced on the nose as these dogs and cats rear up on hind legs. For Popovich these household pets are actors in a theater company, performing roles created for them in a series of comedy sketches.
In a true sense, the animals are typecast. Popovich, who has written a book on feline behavior, is a keen observer of his animals.
Dogs, for example, "will tell you what they want, speak to you with their bark," Popovich said by telephone from New York. Cats, he says, speak with their bodies -- how they position their tail, their ears.
"I look for what the animals do
"I have a Pekingese, for example, who is very shy so, in one sketch set in a school classroom, he plays a student who hasn't done his homework and shyly hides behind his desk from the teacher, who is played by me."
He says he will not ask a dog or a cat to do anything that is unnatural or uncomfortable for them.
And if a few pets share a preference or pattern of behavior, Popovich puts that to good use, too.
"In my show each kitty does one routine," he explained. "If I see one cat is reluctant, I will have another kitty take over the role.
"The show must go on."
At home, Popovich encourages his wife, his 20-year-old daughter, members of his staff to interact with the animals as audiences would -- laugh, applaud --to get them used to that dynamic. And then, when he feels an animal is ready, usually after a period of months, Popovich will put the animal on stage.
Popovich, 48, was born and raised in Kiev in the Ukraine, the child of a circus-performing couple who specialized in juggling. They also were dog trainers, which is how Popovich developed his love for animals.
"It's sometimes easier to communicate with animals than with humans," he quipped.
As a child, Popovich assisted onstage with his mother's show dogs. At the age of six, he began developing his juggling skills. He made his debut as a solo juggler in his teens and, at the age of 17, joined the Moscow Circus as a juggler.
Popovich came to the United States 21 years ago and spent two years with Ringling Bros.- Barnum & Bailey Circus as a juggler. Roughly 15 years ago, this two-time world champion juggler formed Popovich Comedy Pet Theater, which is based in Las Vegas, where, when they are not touring, they perform at Planet Hollywood Resort Casino.
Popovich's fur and feathered actors travel in a well-equipped air-conditioned, heated, comfortably appointed 36-foot trailer that allows each animal its comfort and space. A staff of four grooms, feeds and cares for the pets.
The animals are used to travel, Popovich says. In Las Vegas, they travel between Popovich's home, where they have their own space, and Planet Hollywood.
On the road, arrangements are made ahead of time with a local veterinarian in case assistance is needed. The company has its own veterinarian in Las Vegas.
Popovich says his show is designed not just for kids but for audiences of all ages.
While there are five humans in the cast, Popovich has no illusions about who wins the hearts of theatergoers.
"Audiences have to decide who is more talented, the humans or the animals," Popovich said. "The animals always get more applause."
Unlike their human counterparts, Popovich's rescue pets have a guaranteed contract with him, even after they can no longer perform.
"Those animals stay with me at home," he said.
The fact that his actors are all rescue animals is essential, Popovich said
"Animals are people too," he said. "These are all just ordinary animals from a shelter (leading healthy productive lives).
"This is mission for me," the Russian-accented Popovich said. "If one person goes to a shelter after a performance, I have been successful."
What: Popovich Comedy Pet Theater
When: Tuesday 2 and 7 p.m.
Who: Berkshire Theatre Group
Where: Colonial Theatre, 111 South St., Pittsfield
How: (413) 997-4444; www.BerkshireTheatreGroup.org; at Colonial box office