In his latest one-person show, Jimmy Janowski enters the stage like you’ve never seen before: messily, disgracefully, disastrously unladylike.
Janowski’s entrances – and his transitions and exits – get rightful applause every time, the dangling costume jewelry, lobbed-out winks and sideward pageant mosey all perfected by now. There isn’t a curtain Buffalo’s King of Queens can’t call. And yet, in what might be his millionth time donning such divine attire for comedic effect, in the glorious name of dramatic arts, he finds another way to draw attention.
His latest is “Blanche Survives Katrina in a FEMA Trailer Named Desire,” at Buffalo United Artists, which Janowski, a long-standing company member, calls home. It demands more than mere humored belly rolls. This isn’t just another bawdy dame with a dirty mouth. This one-man-playing-a-woman play is about her star, a literary figure as mythological as Shakespeare’s Ophelia. Funny as much of it is, this juxtaposition of fictional star and real-life catastrophe goes for something much deeper.
Mark Sam Rosenthal’s illustrious script is one of the most fascinating pieces of theater I’ve seen in a long while. It exists, as good writing does, on more than one plane, traveling between Tennessee Williams’ fictional Blanche DuBois and 2006’s incredibly real (read: surreal) Hurricane Katrina.
New Orleans, that gusty, gutsy, busty woman we can never quite grasp tightly enough, is our savior. Between Blanche’s still-simmering hysteria and Katrina’s ruinous attacks, the Crescent City holds her people close, letting them suffer out loud, the way those streets were built to witness.
The conceit here is essentially that the emotionally misplaced Blanche – from “A Streetcar Named Desire,” for those catching up – has clawed her way up through the rubble of Katrina’s dumping and must find her way to safety, among all the chaos, disbelief and post-apocalyptic nightmare. This is Blanche’s entrance, through which Janowski physically transforms, from drag-actor (the distinction, from nightclub drag queen, cannot be underlined enough) to documentary star. That Blanche was originally written as some kind of melodramatic empress helps substantiate this spoofing revisit. In Janowski’s hands, it uncomfortably, perhaps cruelly, feels realistic. And it’s magnificent.
Blanche narrates the aftermath of this horrendous storm through her own broken mirror, one in which she is eternally waiting for hope that never comes. She’s still living, at least, in her own imagination, and she seems right at home in the 21st century. She’s never been quite grounded enough to feel out of place anywhere, and this is her home for now, so at that we don’t bat an eye. Once a New Orleanian, always a New Orleanian.
Humor keeps some of Blanche’s mess buoyant, though, with smart references to her culture shock. Janowski pulls out his trusty rabbit with these moments, where he can mock current trends at the cost of society’s lost refinement. He takes after Ms. DuBois in this way. Blanche’s European pronunciation of “FEMA” is a riot, the Buffalo flatness of which offending her like an American in Paris. Once a Southern belle, always a Southern Belle.
The laughs are there, and Janowski keeps them to the text, as is his wont. Still, this is noteworthy, as he tends to thrive on spontaneity and ad-libs, usually with success. There’s a closeness to text in his performance that pays off. Perhaps it’s portraying a role he’s surely dreamed of playing in earnest that’s tempered his characterization of her from spoof to soul.
It’s a subtle portrayal of a mad storm that makes this so affecting. “But keep it all inside,” said one famous director. Throw it to the wind, director Todd Warfield retorts.
Warfield paces these vignettes nicely. Some are brief, to Rosenthal’s credit. Some flash back to moments with which we’re familiar, with lines Blanche has given to our lexicon. Smooth, elegant lighting helps these transitions float ever so kindly, as if pushing Janowski from one floor cue to the next. It never feels frantic, despite the ongoing displacement. It never feels kind, either.
Rosenthal suggests this inverted universe as a sedative for all of us who are looking – for ourselves, for each other, for our homes. Locals waited days for FEMA relief, packed like sardines in a tin-can Superdome, politics and weather battling for worst offender. In this spellbinding play, Blanche has been waiting for much longer, in a different kind of prison. And Godot never came.
Kindness will have to do until we get there.
What: “Blanche Survives Katrina in a FEMA Trailer Named Desire”
When: Through April 27
Where: Main Street Cabaret, 672 Main St.
Tickets: $15 to $25