By Michael E. Miller
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"The feline psyche is very interesting. They live in the present, and they like to be comfortable." More importantly, perhaps, "They understand velocité," he says, pronouncing the word in French and spinning his arm in circles to demonstrate. "The fastest one gets the prey."
Dominique is the same way. "Me, I like fast," he says. "When I was in Paris, I don't like to walk. You know in the subway? I like to run. I like that," he says, smiling, relishing the thought, "velocité."
"They can read your mind very well," he adds. This, he explains, is not ESP but evolutionary. "If they go after the prey, they have to read the mind of the prey."
Cats are not without empathy, however. "Well, they help you," Dominique says softly. "When you feel weak or tired, they come to you to comfort you. It's interesting, really. When they realize you are down or stressed, it's amazing: They pick it up and comfort you.
"They are more for individuality. They are unique. They do not follow anyone. If people like dogs, they like to follow a leader. But a cat doesn't need to follow to feel strong. Some people are like this." He continues a quasipolitical ramble that seems to follow a single thesis: "On the planet, if people were more independent, we'd have less problems."
In other words, things would be better if people were more like cats.
On his Website, www.catmankeywest.com, Dominique refers to his show as "Dominique's Circus Cats." The name is ironic. Part of the singular appeal of the performance is that it is far from the greatest show on earth.
With a Saturday wedding in full swing yards away, Dominique's show seems, by contrast, to take a tone of irreverence. The pinging of steel drums mingles with a recording of Pachelbel's Canon. Wedding attendees wander by, unwittingly crossing the border between holy matrimony and something else entirely.
One of the most entertaining things for a veteran Catman audience member is to turn away from the show and watch others seeing it for the first time. It is a Rorschach test. Some people are baffled, others amused. Dominique's cats are in control, and often they make a fool of him. "Do something," he pleads, "I look stupide over here!"
Dominique is always clowning around. Part of being a clown, he explains, is humbling yourself before the audience. They laugh at you, not with you, and in the process elevate themselves. This, he says, is why clowns hold a special appeal for children. Sometimes he puts red tissue paper in an embroidery hoop and has his cats jump through it, parodying his ring-of-fire trick. Even then, a lot of people look nonplussed. When several groomsmen pause to watch the show, they freeze, holding cans of Budweiser aloft as they stare in disbelief. "This guy is crazy," somebody mutters.
Maybe they are dog lovers... or drunk... or both. In any case Dominique calls it a "cat show for cat people," but of course it's more than that. The show combines several techniques he has studied in Paris and perfected for decades, including pantomime, clowning, improvisation, and drama. His performance is not simply antics but theater. It is structured, with oddball lines written in like the dialogue of an absurd play.
When introducing Oscar, for example, he says the cat was born to a jungle cat mother. "She was Wilde," he quips.
Many, if not most, miss his puns and double entendres; I am no exception. When Dominique tells me this, it seems to make his performances poignant. I'd thought I heard some tourists mock him and then remember that even Erin, an avid and longstanding Catman fan, had told me she'd seen one show in which no one laughed at all, save for Dominique himself.
Dominique says, though, that sometimes audience members come over, look him in the eye, and say they catch what others miss. And anyway, his more obvious lines, like "Whoo! I am getting excited!" and "Stay where you are!" are so popular that even other Key West performers have copied them. This angers Dominique as much as it flatters him, but he chides them gently, saying he will expect royalties. "Most of them," he says with a sympathetic sigh, "they don't have much imagination."
I came to Key West to get at the root of my fascination with the Catman. When I returned I was told to put the Catman phenomenon in the context of All That Has Happened.
It seemed a bit forced to me, but I dutifully if grudgingly included a September 11 reference early in the story. (Perhaps you remember.) At this point my editor tells me I should revisit that theme, shift the tone from whimsical to wistful. Or as he put it, "Pump up the wistful part."
A meaningful conclusion would've been the perfect souvenir. The word is taken from the French and means "token of remembrance." It seems too delicate a phrase for the airbrushed shells, toe rings, and especially, Osama bin Laden T-shirts sold on Duval Street. How could we ever forget?