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Jane Enkin's Review of Buyer and Cellar: Winnipeg Jewish Theatre May 7-15, 2016 -Go See the Show!

By Jane Enkin

Glamour, says Katharine Briggs in A Dictionary of Fairies, “generally signified a mesmerism or enchantment cast over the senses, so that things were perceived or not perceived as the enchanter wished.” Superstars in the worlds of theatre, film or music – or in the case of Barbra Streisand, all three – cast a powerful enchantment. There’s often an intriguing question of which comes first – does someone become a famous star because of their glamour, or do we perceive someone as glamourous because they are famous?

A different exploration concerns the kind of glamour that surrounds someone who is not world famous, just a terrific Winnipeg performer. After Sunday night’s performance of Buyer and Cellar, my companion and I were thrilled to greet actor Ryan James Miller, finding ourselves gushing not just about his performance that night but his work in many plays, in sketch comedy troupe Hot Thespian Action, and for me, most especially his incandescent performance in WJT’s Angels in America.

Buyer and Cellar draws on an intriguing bit of real-life celebrity trivia. Barbra Streisand has a shopping street in her basement. Once I looked it up on line, it didn’t sound nutty to me – she owns many antiques and the costumes from her films, and rather than setting up regular display shelves for her collections, she designed an old-fashioned doll shop, a dress shop, etc. Over-the-top, definitely.

Playwright Jonathan Tolins starts from the premise that someone must be employed to take care of the shops, and to serve The Customer when she chooses to look in. He created the likeable character Alex More, who takes the job and then is drawn into the puzzling world of the little shops and their owner.

The fabulous reason to see this show is the solo performer. Ryan James Miller takes an easy, conversational tone with the audience, chatting with us like cozy friends. He’s an excitable friend, who lets us in on triumph, despair, delight, boredom, enchantment, frustration…his full emotional life. As he tells about his experiences, he takes on the characters of all the people he interacts with. His shifts in body language and carriage for each character are delicious. His physical skill allows him to use his full vocal range for each character – each one has Miller’s rich, exuberant voice, and yet each one is physically distinct.

Although we learn early on that no one will “Do Barbra” in the show, Barbra Streisand is a vivid character. I enjoyed Miller’s Barbra, but I absolutely loved his take on Alex as he watched her and interacted with her in so many different ways, beginning with star-struck, ecstatic awe from the moment he gets a glimpse of a Funny Girl costume, but soon bringing all his creativity, his moods and his thoughts into their relationship.

The characters Miller plays are women and gay men – until one macho straight guy has a moment in the story. Miller was extraordinary to watch as he took that role, growing, it seemed, in height and shoulder width as well as swagger. Again, the real treat is watching Miller carry on both sides of the conversation between the self-important guy and little Alex.

The script explores, through the fairly naïve perspectives of all the characters, lots and lots of themes. A random list might include how friendships are built, how people tell their own life-stories, what drives artists to make art and what drives rich people to be eccentric rich people. Alex constantly airs his ambivalence; his will to be enchanted and his attraction to irony. The playwright gets a lot of laughs from the moments of irony, but I found his writing more interesting in moments of sincere feeling. Still, the irony did sometimes get me thinking; on that subject of glamour, for example – there’s no question in my mind that Barbra Streisand’s shine is built on massive talent, skill and inner power, but what about the glow around that macho guy?

In a weird way, the play is almost too realistic. What happens would be kind of amazing if your own friend told you about it, but the conversational storytelling style and the scattered, happenstance ways things take place keep the play very grounded – things get strange but not *that* strange.

Director Kayla Gordon keeps the pace fresh and funny. Designer Jamie Plummer’s set has the excruciatingly tasteful neutral colours and old-fashioned feel that can been seen in photos of Streisand’s home, and yet it’s easy for Miller to transform it as he helps us imagine different locations.

A large part of the fun of watching this comedy is keeping up with the references and quotations. You’re a better pop culture maven than I if you can get them all. I was good with the many Jewish and Yiddish-language bits slipped in, and I caught the “steep and narrow stairway” that reminded me of A Chorus Line. My companion that evening had seen way more Barbra Streisand movies than I had and picked up lots of lines that I missed. WJT Artistic Director Ari Weinberg says the play is full of references gay audiences will love, and he told me that when Alex hears the bell ring and gasps, “A customer!” he sounds just like he’s in Sweeney Todd. You can keep your own tally when you go.

It is really refreshing, still, to see a show in which it’s no big deal that there are characters who are gay and characters who are Jewish – just who they are – and yet there’s also no blurry, well-meaning attempt to make them “just like everybody else.” Barbra Streisand is distinctly Jewish as well as a unique star, Alex is distinctly, enthusiastically gay and his own self, and Alex’s boyfriend is definitively both gay and Jewish and passionately his own person.

As I write about them, recalling them so clearly, I forget for a moment that these characters were all created on stage by Ryan James Miller. Gorgeously.

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Rhonda Spivak, Editor

Publisher: Spivak's Jewish Review Ltd.

Opinions expressed in letters to the editor or articles by contributing writers are not necessarily endorsed by Winnipeg Jewish Review.