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CLEOPATRA, presented by B.U.A. at the Alleyway Theatre, defines “camp” for the ages.

THE BASICS: CLEOPATRA, a comedy by Charles Busch, presented by Buffalo United Artists, directed by Todd Warfield, stars Jimmy Janowski, Bebe Bvlgari, Maria Droz, Timothy Patrick Finnegan, Adam Hayes, Michael Seitz, and Guy Tomassi. It opened March 17 and runs through April 8, Fridays & Saturdays only at 8:00 p.m. at the Alleyway Theatre, One Curtain Up Alley (which runs from Main to Pearl Streets). Runtime: Two hours with a 10-minute intermission (886-9239). www.buffalobua.org

THUMBNAIL SKETCH: One big laugh line might serve as synecdoche for the evening. Early in Act I, Scene 1, set in “A Camp Near Tarsus” the great Julius Caesar, questioned as to why there is a fortune teller along on a military expedition, says: “It’s camp.” With seven actors playing twelve roles, two of them in full drag, and two cross-dressing, we follow the story of Cleopatra, Queen of the Nile, and her romantic conquest of Caesar and then his general, Marc Antony, finally ending in suicide by asp. Much of the material comes from Shakespeare’s plays, and while it won’t seem at all like a Shakespeare production, it is true to the spirit of the bard by incorporating contemporary references and plenty of saucy / bawdy / raunchy scenes.

THE PLAYERS, THE PLAY, AND THE PRODUCTION: Regarding the definition of “camp” I feel a kinship with Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart who struggled to define pornography, ending with the famous quote: “… but I know it when I see it….”

However, after seeing CLEOPATRA, I now rather like the definition of “camp” that I found in Merriam-Webster.com: “… something so outrageously artificial, affected, inappropriate, or out-of-date as to be considered amusing… outrageous in concept and wild in its execution with double entendres flying every which way.”

So to paraphrase Justice Stewart I can now say “I know camp when I see it, and Charles Busch’s CLEOPATRA is definitely that.”

The title role is played by Buffalo camp icon with a devoted (count me in) following, Jimmy Janowski, who can play straight or drag and has developed a number of variations of “the look” – those moments when he freezes the action and without word or gesture brings out the loudest laughs. When I was young, the masters of this were Jack Benny and Groucho Marx, who would just look away, not always directly at the audience, and hold it. And the longer they held it, the louder the laughter became. If you love Jimmy, you’ll love this show.

If you love Jimmy Janowski, you’ll love this show.

Bebe Bvlgari (Michael Blasdell when not in drag) plays Charmion, Cleo’s #1 maid-in-waiting, and delivers the rock-solid support that keeps plays like this from spiraling downward into college revue land. Ms. Bvlgari offered perhaps the most consistent performance of the evening and was impressive.

Vying for #1 status in Cleo’s palace is Iras, played with incredible energy by Maria Droz, most recently seen as anything but mainstream characters: Puck in Shakespeare’s AMSND and as one of the strippers in GYPSY. Someday she’ll get a leading lady role, but until that happens, this is a good play to see Droz stretch her excellent range. My aunt would have said of Droz: “She’s a pistol.”

It was interesting that when both Timothy Patrick Finnegan and Guy Tomassi were playing cross gender roles (Octavia versus Octavian and Calpurnia versus Julius Caesar, respectively) they knew their lines better, their delivery was clearer, their performances more nuanced. Perhaps being out of their comfort zone forced them to focus a little more.

Michael Seitz usually plays a tight-ass, most recently seen in the last three B.U.A. productions of DANIEL’S HUSBAND, IT’S ONLY A PLAY, and then STEVE. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Seitz smile. So as the military martinet Marc Antony he is somewhat believable, but doesn’t handle the transition to Cleo’s love-puppy well. On opening night, however, there was an endearing moment, when his and Cleo’s costumes got tangled and he completely broke character and couldn’t stop laughing. It was pretty funny and the audience was with him for the whole scene.

And Adam Hayes, most recently the fiancé in IT SHOULD HAVE BEEN YOU, may have had the most fun with quick costume changes as Achmed, and as the Soothsayer, and as Apollodrus, where he should get some award for skimpiest costume. While not much in the way of coverage, he absolutely rocked it.

Whatever budget was saved by Apollodrus’s costume it was more than lavished on all the other costumes, especially Cleo’s of gold and silver, not to mention everyone’s jewelry, head pieces, wigs and crowns. It’s a cliché, but the word “fabulous” is quite accurate. Costume credits went to Todd Warfield and Jimmy Janowski. Check out Marc Antony’s golden cowboy boots, the sash worn by Lepidus, and everything worn by Cleopatra.

Now, given the high-camp nature of the play, the cheesiest set would have worked, but, much appreciated, when you first enter the theater, the soundscape and a full proscenium set decorated to look like an Egyptian tomb are stunning (Bruce DeJaiffe, Set Construction). The venue is not known for extravagant sets, but this was something. And the Egyptian entr’acte music was so well chosen that I had to ask who programmed it. Turns out that it was the director Todd Warfield, who also incorporated Steve Martin’s “King Tut,” Marc Cohn’s “Walkin’ in Memphis,” and a high point of the evening, Janowski, Bvlgari, and Droz singing the classic Jo Stafford/Gordon MacRae song “You Belong To Me” (“See the pyramids along the Nile / Watch the sunrise on a tropic isle / Just remember, darling, all the while / You belong to me”).

Celebrating 25 years, Buffalo United Artists continues to provide some of the best entertainment in town.

*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)

ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.

TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.

THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.

FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.

FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!

Written by Peter Hall

Peter Hall

Peter Hall continues trying to figure out how "it" all works. For 20 years, as program host on Classical 94.5 WNED and continuing on-stage with the Buffalo Chamber Music Society, he's conducted over 1,000 interviews with artists as he asks them to explain, in layman's terms, "what's the big picture here?"

As mentioned recently in Buffalo Spree magazine, Peter's "Buffalo Rising reviews are the no-holds barred 'everyman's' take." And, on “Theater Talk” (heard Friday mornings at 6:45 and 8:45 a.m. on WBFO 88.7 FM and Saturday afternoons at 5:55 p.m. on Classical 94.5 WNED) his favorite question of co-host Anthony Chase is simply "What's goin' on?"

A member of Buffalo's Artie Awards Committee, Peter holds a B.A. in Comparative Literature from Columbia University and an M.B.A. from SUNY at Buffalo. For over twenty-five years he has been an adjunct professor for Canisius College’s Richard J. Wehle School of Business.

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