Michael Seitz and Jimmy Janowski star in a Buffalo United Artists production of “Cleopatra” by Charles Busch.

There are certain phenomena Buffalonians must experience in their lifetimes.

You have to eat at Mighty Taco. You have to watch the Turkey Trot. And you have to see Jimmy Janowski perform on the Buffalo United Artists stage.

Until you do, the theater community regrets to inform you that your membership in the diehard Buffalonian club will be on hold.

Fortunately for those who have not yet had the pleasure of watching Janowski float in from the wings as if he was puffed out of an actual smoke machine, the city's master of camp will be appearing twice per weekend through April 8 in BUA's outrageous production of Charles Busch's "Cleopatra."

The show is a characteristically freehanded adaptation of Shakespeare's tragedy "Antony and Cleopatra," slightly more highbrow material than Busch's typical sources of inspiration: The golden age of Hollywood movies, the sordid lives of stars and starlets and the various coded ways sexual difference has been staged throughout the 20th century.

Busch's plays, especially as performed by BUA's committed cast of comic veterans, are about as close to Vaudeville as any form of contemporary entertainment. They are bawdy in a host of unprintable ways. They are shameless in their borrowings from the work of other screenwriters. And they are brilliant in their own polyglot way, shuffling and remixing input from several centuries into distinctive pieces of modern absurdism.

In the title role and in a stunning array of costumes designed by himself and director Todd Warfield, Janowski's entrance prompted its usual round of rapturous entrance applause on opening night. This applause is not requisite, but rather an expression of the crowd's glee at the prospect of another Janowski performance tinged with the actor's trademark quirks.

Those quirks are all here in "Cleopatra." Janowski spends the first act of the play in a wig of thin black dreadlocks that evoked, as my fellow critic Ben Siegel pointed out, Cher, Stevie Wonder and Janice the Muppet in equal measure.

Trying to capture the intrinsic hilarity of Janowski's trademark facial expression in words is probably a futile effort. (The closest I can get to call it a perplexed overbite.) As is any attempt to communicate the various subtle and broad expressions of physical comedy that make his performances so memorable. Suffice it to say that Janowski is at the top of his game.

It helps as well that Janowski is surrounded by a cast of BUA stalwarts well-versed in the ways of camp. Michael Seitz, in his scanty Roman getup, plays the licentious Mark Antony with relish and a few accidentally hilarious wardrobe malfunctions. Timothy Patrick Finnegan delivers and then some as various characters, including the fair Octavia and the conniving Octavian. Bebe Bvulgari and Maria Droz are perfectly over the top as Cleopatra's servants (and, as it turns out, passionate lesbian lovers). Adam Hayes gives his all (and bares his all) as the soothsayer and as Cleopatra's queeny servant. And Guy Tomassi is on point in a variety of roles.

For those used to Busch's more quick-hitting work, "Cleopatra" may seem to move more slowly owning to its Shakespearean source. It does drag in spots, and lacks the quick-hit hilarity of some of his other work. But the story of Cleopatra and Mark Antony comes across fully, despite the comic angle of attack. And Warfield, Buffalo's most over-the-top director, keeps things moving fast enough so that our attention rarely flags.

But it is of course Janowski, not the text, who is the main draw. For him, the script is just another sparkling outfit to draw attention to his comic gifts. As usual, he wears it well.

THEATER REVIEW

"Cleopatra"

★★★ (out of four)

Campy adaptation of Shakespeare's "Antony and Cleopatra" by Charles Busch.

Runs in the Alleyway Theatre (1 Curtain Up Alley) through April 8. Tickets are $15 to $25. Call 886-9239 or visit buffalobua.org.

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