With its deft characterizations and non-stop flow, the one-man show Buyer & Cellar (B&C) is far more than a funny riff on the quirks of a celebrity.
The entirely fictional story is set in a fantastic — but surprisingly real — location: the private shopping mall of actress-singer-composer Barbra Streisand. The Academy, Tony, Golden Globe and Grammy award-winning artist wrote My Passion for Design in 2010. Her book includes a description of the mall, built in the basement of her Malibu home and housing Streisand’s personal collections in settings including a doll shop and a boutique of antique clothing.
Fascinated with what he calls an “artificial utopia,” playwright Jonathan Tolins (The Twilight of the Golds, If Memory Serves, The Last Sunday in June, and Secrets of the Trade) spins the comical tale of a struggling actor hired to work as the mall’s sole employee.
“The set is very simple and classy, leaving a sort of blank slate for creative lighting, projections, and imaginative storytelling,” says actor Toby Yatso, the star of Phoenix Theatre’s production. “And there are only two props: an actual copy of My Passion for Design, and a cell phone in my pocket.”
Fresh from an athletic performance as Bert in Mary Poppins, Yatso teaches musical theater at Arizona State University, works as a member of the Megaw Actors Studio and an artist-in-residence at Phoenix Theatre (PT), and directs PT’s summer Musical Theatre Intensive program.
Buyer & Cellar is directed by Ron May, who himself stars in the upcoming Phoenix Theatre production of One Man, Two Guvnors running May 20 through June 14. May is founding artistic director for Tempe’s Stray Cat Theatre, and brings to B&C his considerable expertise with unusual shows like Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson and Pluto.
Although Streisand is a cultural icon, B&C promises equal entertainment to devotees and new fans alike with no need for deep background knowledge, says May,”…no more than an audience has to have any kind of knowledge of, like, Danish royalty to enjoy Hamlet.”
“I suppose knowing about the ins and outs of Barbra’s life may give you a deeper appreciation of a handful of references, but there’s nothing that’s going to really leave anyone in the dark,” May explains. “It’s a comedy about our worship of celebrities – Barbra just happens to be the target.”
“She’s funny, she’s warm, she’s wildly quirky, she’s vulnerable, she’s demanding, she’s caring…” he says. “I actually liked her more after working on this show.” May adds, “If Barbra Streisand in real life is anything like the Barbra in this show, I totally want to be friends with her.”
“The script does a superb job of teaching as it goes,” agrees Yatso. “All you need to know is that Barbra Streisand is a force of nature in the entertainment industry, so that covers just about everyone in America.”
“I think our obsession with celebrities is twofold,” he continues, “…and the play touches on both halves – what makes her untouchable and what makes her perhaps like everybody else.”
Although Yatso’s six roles in B&C don’t take him strolling up and overhead around the proscenium arch as in Mary Poppins, they demand lighting-fast character changes. “Let it be known that I am not flipping in the air or tap-dancing on the ceiling in this one,” the six-and-a-half-foot-plus actor says with a laugh. “But I try to use my body expressively and creatively however and whenever possible.” He adds, “There’s a lot of body there, so make it count, right?”
“It’s actually a very physical show,” says May. “It’s just one guy creating a number of different worlds and characters and environments and situations, and all he has is his voice and his body.” The director explains, “All it takes is a little subtle shift of his physicality and you instantly know which character just showed up on stage. Those skills are a godsend in a show like this.”
“I have a lot of conversations ‘with myself,’” Yatso says. “Maybe it feels like playing Ping-Pong with yourself, but both sides really want to score the point…?”
“The challenge is really for Toby,” declares May. “He has to keep the ball up in the air for the whole 100 minutes. The amount of focus and concentration and energy that takes is pretty insane.” He continues, “My satisfaction honestly comes from watching him absolutely kill it night after night and audiences going wild over him.” May chuckles and adds, “I feel like a purring cat watching him.”
If you go:
- Phoenix Theatre’s Buyer & Cellar continues through Sunday, May 3
- Mainstage Theatre, 100 E. McDowell Rd.
- 602-254-2151 or firstname.lastname@example.org