Yuri and Dmitri Kuklachev are a father-son duo of Russian clowns and the proprietors of the Moscow Cats Theater. The Russian clowns are suing the Seattle Repertory Theater,

as well as dozens of other theaters and individuals, for (allegedly) abetting two imposters who (allegedly) toured the United States last year, calling themselves the Moscow Cats Theater.

In the early 1970s, the Russian clowns became stars in the USSR for their cat routine, which was originally part of the Moscow State Circus. The cats walked tightropes, balanced on their front paws, pretend-mauled people, and performed other circus tricks. The Russian clowns claim Leonid Brezhnev as one of their most devoted fans. In 1977—the year Brezhnev forced his way into a second term as supreme leader of the USSR—the Russian clowns became some of the first Soviet performers to tour the United States.

Since then, the Russian clowns have toured in 80 countries. They have won international awards (including the "Silver Clown" in Monte Carlo) and have been commemorated on stamps in the Most Serene Republic of San Marino, a tiny mountain country appended to Italy, with an estimated population of 30,000. The Russian clowns are (allegedly) beloved by children, grandmothers, and cat fanciers around the world.

In 2006 and 2007, the Russian clowns toured the United States, performing in New York, Los Angeles, and at the Seattle Rep.

Except they didn't.

The Russian clowns who performed at the Rep last June were, allegedly, impostors. (Copycats, if you will.) According to a lawsuit filed last month, the copycats stole the Russian clowns' names, tricks, and sartorial style and toured the country as the Moscow Cats Theater.

The Russian clowns are pissed. They're suing the copycats and their U.S. promoters—Mark and Yanis Gelfman, another father-son team—as well as Ticketmaster, Onlineseats.com, and every theater where the copycats performed, including the Seattle Rep.

"We don't know anything about this [Russian clown situation]," says Rep communications director Ilana Balint. "We haven't been served any papers."

"Well, they're gonna get served," says Gary Tsirelman, the Russian clowns' lawyer. "We're just beginning a lengthy process."

Tsirelman—whose voice is low and rumbling with a Russian accent and an inflection of growling bemusement—was referred to this case by a colleague. "[The Russian clowns] need a vulture in court," Tsirelman says. "Someone very vicious who does not take no for an answer. [The Russian clowns] said, 'find us the biggest a-hole out there.' And that was me."

The Russian clowns, who filed the suit in New York district court, are suing for "federal and common-law trademark infringement, false endorsement, unfair competition, false designation of origin, dilution of a famous trademark, and violations of anti-cybersquatting law, rights of publicity and privacy, fraud, conversion, prima facie tort, and unjust enrichment."

According to the suit, one of the copycats—Vladimir Krasnolozhkin—worked for the Russian clowns as an assistant during the 1990s, before being "discharged." Then Krasnolozhkin (allegedly) formed his own troupe, and toured remote corners of Russia, trying to pass himself off as one of the Russian clowns. Russian police shut him down.

Fast-forward to December 2006: The real Russian clowns finished a real tour of the U.S. and returned to Russia, expecting to come back for another American tour in 2007. Then, according to the suit, they got screwed.

From the complaint: "Within days of [the Russian clowns'] departure, [U.S.] promoter M. Gelfman... secretly filed a registration with the United States Patent and Trademark Office to register the famous Kuklachev's 'Moscow Cats Theater' mark in his own name." He also bought the domain www.moscowcatstheatre.com. Gelfman, according to the Russian clowns' lawyer, "tried to steal [the Russian clowns'] identity."

Then, the lawsuit claims, Gelfman trotted out the copycats, dyed their hair, and sent them on the road as "the world's only Moscow Cats Theater." On tour, the copycats allegedly imitated specific tricks, jokes, and the Russian clowns' "distinctive, but somewhat unusual costume."

The Russian clowns are currently seeking $10 million in damages, but that number might grow to as much as $100 million—Tsirelman says he's still getting calls from people who saw the ersatz Russian clowns. "I hear their show was pretty bad," he says. "A lot of disappointed grandkids."

So why are the Russian clowns suing individual theaters, like the Rep, when they were duped like everybody else?

Tsirelman says some theaters—like the Tribeca Performing Arts Center—received cease-and-desist letters but presented the copycats anyway, arguing that they had to honor their contracts. (Seattle Rep did not receive a cease-and-desist letter.) As for the rest: "Trademark law does not require defendants to have knowledge or intent to deceive."

Ignorance, as usual, is no excuse.

As of press time, Gelfman and his defense lawyers had not returned requests for comment and Seattle Rep had still not been served any papers.

Stay tuned. recommended