CLEO – WHERE REEL LIFE AND REAL LIFE EXPLOSIVELY COLLIDE ON THE ALLEY THEATER STAGE

SHORT TAKE:

Cleo is a brilliant stage dramedy, playing through April 29, 2018 at the Alley Theater in Houston, Texas – written by Lawrence Wright and directed by Bob Balaban, about the filming of the movie Cleopatra as seen from the perspective of the explosive affair between Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, who play the cinematic lovers Cleopatra and Marc Antony.

WHO SHOULD GO:

Adults. Burton, Taylor and their relationship became the short hand definition of a passionate, torrid love affair. In addition, the movie they were filming, Cleopatra, pushed the MPAA ratings of that time to the edge of the envelope. So to show less than Mr. Balaban does would be like trying to demonstrate an atomic bomb with a birthday candle. But this means it is not appropriate for youths.

LONG TAKE:

I have rarely seen life so poetically and entertainingly imitate art and that art so analogously reflected back than in the play Cleo currently running at the Alley Theatre in Houston, Texas. And I have NEVER seen such a story more skillfully manifested. Masterfully written by Lawrence Wright and brilliantly directed by the multi-talented Bob Balaban, Cleo is about the romance that volcanically erupted between Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton during the shooting of the movie Cleopatra.

Cleopatra, for anyone under 40 and not an old movie aficionado, is a classic, epic, bombastic, spectacular that was filmed in 1963 with three of the heaviest hitting stars in Hollywood at the time – Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, and Rex Harrison, and populated with some of the most solid and talented supporting actors of their era including   Martin Landau, Carroll O'Connor, Roddy MacDowell and Hume Cronyn.

The stories surrounding this legendary moving disaster area are legion. However, Messieurs Wright & Balaban tackle the central fuse that wove its way through the making of the movie – the romance that began between the couple who for the next two decades would be known in one breath, almost as one word – Liz and Dick. Married and divorced twice to each other and many times to others they became inseparable. Toxic to each other but unable to stay away from each other, they remained close for the rest of their lives, whether married to each other or not. Cleo tells the story of the beginning of this incendiary relationship.

Cleo is funny, bittersweet, bawdy, fascinating, historically interesting, and somehow also whimsically endearing. Lisa Birnbaum, as Elizabeth Taylor, radiates all of the subtleties of Taylor's voice and body mannerisms without creating the caricature that could have so easily emerged. The same for Richard Short as Richard Burton. I loved the accents Short was able to swing into and out of – Burton's normal Welsh versus the high British posh that we are so used to hearing him speak. 

All the subtlety but unmistakable familiarity of these personalities reincarnated on stage for us is a massive credit to both the skillful writing of Mr. Wright whose dialogue lends itself to revelations and foretelling, and to the insightful direction by Mr Balaban. In other hands this could have ended up as a farce. But the affection and respect Wright and Balaban have for these subjects shines through. Mr. Balaban's understanding and perceptive observation of these creatures of Hollywood who are also deeply human beings is personified in the choices which he has made with these actors in particular and the production in general.

Mark Capri portrays Rex Harrison and is given a bit broader license to portray the man who was both Dr. Dolittle and Henry Higgins. Capri's larger than life performance offers a counterpoint and some comic relief to the intense proceedings sparking around him. Brian Dykstra as Joe Mankiewicz occupies a Machiavellian type father position, who both struggles to keep peace amongst his cast but also tends to stir the pot just enough to elicit the dialogue and performance of which he knows these intensely talented movie stars are capable. Adam Gibbs as the cuckolded clueless Eddie Fisher, the man who left his wife Debbie Reynolds for Elizabeth Taylor, provides just the right combination of posturing famous singer and schlemiel who is the last one on the train to recognize that he has lost his wife. Gibbs' Fisher reminds me of the sad clown husband character from Chicago who devotedly would have kept his straying wife but is ultimately abandoned. But unlike the husband in Chicago we know Fisher's hands are not at all clean and that there is a certain poetic justice to the affair lighting up between his erring wife and the Welsh actor.

Bob Balaban, the director, is one of those faces you recognize but don't always remember his name. He has been in a wide range of movies, as a wide range of characters – from the oddly named but sweetly thoughtful Dr. Chandra in 2010, to the corrupt federal investigator in Absence of Malice, to the charmingly out of his depth cartographer in Close Encounters, to the ill-fated film critic in Lady in the Water and the art connoisseur in The Monuments Men. Mr Balaban has had a long career in Hollywood as a gifted actor, director, writer and producer. He even has a singing credit in Woody Allen's Deconstructing Harry. But this directorial outing of Cleo will stand out as one of his best works.

There is no whitewashing or lionizing of Taylor and Burton's scandalous behavior, the drunkenness, or the betrayal of their spouses. There is a scene in the stage play Lion in Winter in which Queen Eleanor reminisces to her son Richard about the first meeting between herself and his father, Henry II. Eleanor had been married, at the time, to King Louis of France. However, Eleanor recounts of Henry: "He came down from the North to Paris with a mind like Aristotle and a form like mortal sin. We shattered the commandments on the spot." This line echoed in my head as I watched Cleo. The violent passion between Taylor and Burton washes over the audience, exposing both their strengths as well as their all too human weaknesses. We see behind the Wizard's curtain and much like the fascination one might have for a slow motion train wreck, it is not always pleasant to see but it is absolutely captivating and mesmerizing to watch.

The movie, Cleopatra, destroyed the careers and health of two directors, wrecked at least two marriages and almost bankrupted 20th Century Fox. Cleopatra was drastically behind schedule and grostesquely over-budget when Joseph Mankiewicz took over the director's chair from Rouben Mamoulian. Without a viable shooting script to this disaster on wheels, rewrites were occasionally not completed until the night before, organization was poor and money was thrown willy-nilly at problems that should never have arisen. The entire cast and crew, trying to recreate the hot dry Egyptian climate in chilly damp London was moved to Rome. One scene was to be shot on the beach at Anzio. Rights were obtained, permissions were granted, and construction workers were killed from the detonation of a live mine left over from World War II. Shooting was once again delayed as a minesweeper had to be hired to prevent another tragedy. Elizabeth Taylor almost died from double pneumonia during the shoot. Established famous character actors had to be hired and paid for, in some cases months beyond the time for which they were originally contracted, as delays mounted one upon another.

BUT, as amusing as these scenarios and anecdotes are, most are wisely not addressed in Cleo. They do, howeverprovide a fitting backdrop of catastrophic ambiance to the Ground Zero of this nuclear romance.

During a Q&A before the performance, Mr. Bob Balaban spent an hour giving generously of his time to provide some background about the making of this play, spin stories about his personal life in New York as his family founded a string of movie houses, and field questions from an appreciative audience. He was extremely gracious, patient, open, warm, articulate, and friendly. Sort of like how you might imagine Mr. Rogers were he a theatrical director. He very kindly agreed to allow photos, videos and audios be made of the mini seminar. He also waited for anyone who wished afterwards to have a word and a photo. I was one of those who benefited from his affability, and assuming my technical crew can make the transfer, I will have audio and video excerpts up soon.

For the record, I used to think Elizabeth Taylor was a bubble-headed movie star. And to some extent, yes, she was. She made some very bad choices in her life, she drank, she took drugs, she lived to excess. However there was another part of her which I did not know about until doing research in anticipation of seeing the play and writing this blog. Elizabeth Taylor was a convert to Judaism. She was quite devoted to Israel and her outspokenness actually got her banned from Egypt even for the production of Cleopatra so that scenes were filmed in Rome with her and exterior shots only were filmed in Egypt without her. She spent the latter part of her life, after her film career, in well known philanthropic projects, including AIDS research, children's education, and raising money for Israel. However the most astonishing and courageous thing that I discovered she did was something I had never even heard a whisper about before. 

In 1976 Muslims hijacked an airline carrying 248 passengers. They rerouted to Entebbe, Uganda and threatened all the passengers with murder unless fellow terrorists were released. All of the non-Jewish passengers were released. Elizabeth Taylor, then one of the most famous faces on Earth, offered herself in exchange for the remaining 100 Jewish hostages. The terrorists refused the offer. Not just a PR stunt, the Israli Ambassador to the United States, Simcha Dinitz publically thanked her at the Jewish National Fund Gala, presenting her and her then husband Jack Warner with a certificate for a forest which would be planted in her honor, saying: "The Jewish people will always remember." It was an extremely brave thing to do. Had these Muslim terrorists accepted there is no telling what they would have done to her. Instead Israeli Defense Forces successfully released almost all of the hostages safely and took out the terrorists.

While the events in the play Cleo take place over a decade before this real life drama at Entebbe, Cleo's backstage pass look at one of the most infamously known, adulterous affairs in history, reminds us that there is often much more to the players involved than is commonly known. Thanks to Mr. Wright and Mr. Balaban, we have an opportunity to warm our hands by a still shot, an intimate and affectionately humorous peek, at the megaton conflagration that was Taylor and Burton

In 90 minutes the craft of this play is such that we, as the audience, come away feeling we have known these people for years, not just because we have read critiques, seen the movies, scanned articles and sadly noted obituaries about them. But we know these people because we have been given a look at them in their smallness, in the sinful activities of which we are all subject in this Fallen World. Great literature makes one feel that one is a better person after having seen it. That can come in two forms. The story can be of either a good example or a horrible warning. I think you can probably guess into which category this amusing, sad, bittersweet and mesmerizing play falls. As the play Cleo demonstrates, in this backstage pass look at one of the most infamously well known adulterous affairs in history, there is often much more to the players involved than is commonly known.

I predict Misters Wright and Balaban have a justifiably massive hit on their hands. Cleo will only be playing at the Alley Theater through April 29, 2018 so hurry to see it there. It will, undoubtedly find a national run in the near future as word gets out about this emotionally expressive and delightful play, but why wait??!! Treat yourself to a one-of-a-kind experience in Cleo as stars in reel life and real life collide on the Alley Theater stage.

DR WHO: TWICE UPON A TIME – NEWBIES CAN’T TELL THE PLAYERS WITHOUT THIS SCORECARD

SHORT TAKE:

Peter Capaldi’s exit from the Dr Who Universe is, honestly, a weakish episode. Twice Upon a Time, will be extremely confusing for the "uninitiated"  BUT does have lovely resolutions for the conundrum involving the Captain and the extra twists for both the Captain and the Doctor’s regenerations.

LONG TAKE:

The first part of this blog is for those not familiar with Dr Who. The second contains SPOILERS for Twice Upon a Time.

My husband, a friend and I all went to go see the latest Doctor Who Christmas special shown as a Fathom event at our local theater. The enthusiasm with which our friend accepted the invite led me to believe he was a fan. I sat and saved seats as my husband waited for our friend in the lobby. But as my husband sat down on one side of me and my friend on the other and the credits began to herald the beginning of the show, my husband leaned over and said our friend had never seen a Doctor Who episode before. Horrified I turned to our friend and was struck speechless with the idea of trying to condense 50 years of Doctor Who into two or three sentences.

To make matters worse it was not a standalone show as some are, but was a complex story heavily dependent upon knowledge of the background history.

The premise of Twice Upon a Time is that Peter Capaldi, 12th doctor, on the verge of regenerating to the 13th, meets himself just before his FIRST regeneration. The original doctor was played by William Hartnell who passed away long ago and is currently played by David Bradley (who was most famously known as the castle caretaker Filtch in the Harry Potter series). In the process of coming to terms with their own version of mortality, the Doctors are both reluctant to regenerate. This hesitation causes a temporal fracture and time to freeze in place resulting in a very puzzled British Captain (Mark Gatiss)    being thrown out of his own time line just as he is about to be killed in a confrontation with a German during World War I. The three, the two versions of The Doctor and the beleaguered Captain, end up stranded together in a – literally – frozen landscape.

Both Doctors must find the resolve to move on as well as face the reality of having to return a very likeable and honorable human to his moment of death.

It occurred to me that not everyone is familiar with Dr Who. Amazing but true. So I offer a dozen points to get you started.

1. There are two distinct versions of Doctor Who: the original and the reboot.

The original Doctor Who started life in 1963 as the British version of Mr. Wizard, but who travels time and space to explore and teach. The special effects were cheesier than the original Star TrekDr Who was rebooted in 2005 with a bigger budget, better effects, more natural acting and a less self-conscious sense of humor.

2. When the original Doctor Who, William Hartnell, started having trouble remembering his lines due to age and illness, someone came up with the most brilliant marketing device since product placement. When an actor can’t or doesn’t want to continue they have Dr Who become mortally ill or injured and instead of dying, regenerate into an entirely different body. Same memories but different personality. This periodically reboots and updates the entire show.

3. A WARNING: Unlike the original show the reboot occasionally gets Captain Planet on you, advocating a certain environmental activism or even occasionally includes lifestyles of some of its side characters completely inappropriate to a show which was originally targeted to a younger audience.

4. There are a few terms you should know:

Time Lord – the name of the species of which the Doctor is a member.

TARDIS – Time and Relative Dimension in Space. It is essentially a sentient time and space ship which can move to any time – past, present, or future- and any place in space and sometimes even outside of the universe. It masquerades as a blue British 1960s telephone box and is both the Doctor’s vehicle and companion.

Sonic screwdriver – it’s a gizmo which sometimes acts as a "Deus ex Machina" to get him out of trouble – opening unopenable doors, emitting high shrieks which deter monsters, deactivating bombs, etc.

5. The doctor is a kind of combination Superman, MacGyver (the government agent who could make any needed device while on assignment out of the most mundane items) and Bill Nye the Science Guy – only Doctor Who needs gizmos to have the abilities that Superman was born with.

6. Dr Who travels the universe landing in places of crisis to fix whatever is wrong. This is likely why he is often referred to as The Doctor. He does his best to heal people, situations and places. While he's not always successful he is brave, kind, resolute, occasionally condescending, often snarky, generous, willing to self sacrifice unto death for even strangers, and always always clever.

7. Each of the doctors has a token expression and/or dress item. For example Peter Davison’s Dr Who inexplicably liked to wear a stalk of celery on his jacket lapel. Tom Baker was known for his big floppy hat and scarf. Christopher Eccleston, the first of the reboot doctors, wore a leather jacket and liked to say "fantastic". David Tennant wore a duster and was fond of the expression allons-y. Matt Smith’s Doctor thought bow ties were "cool" and exclaimed Geronimo frequently. Peter Capaldi experimented with an electric guitar, dressed like an old fashioned magician and frequently made fun of his own bushy eyebrows.

8. The doctor travels with companions who come and go. They're almost always completely platonic. There are some especially notable companions:

Brigadier Lethbridge Stewart (Nicholas Courtney) – the only military man Doctor Who ever fully respected, called a friend, or would salute.

Rose Tyler (Billie Piper) was the favorite companion of the reboot.

  Sarah Jane Smith (Elisabeth Slaydon) was the favorite companion of the original series. The actress as well as the character made an appearance for one last show in the reboot during Tennant’s tenure not long before she passed away of cancer.

River Song (Alex Kingston) was Dr Who’s wife, his intimate and lived backwards – he met her at the end of her life and she met him chronologically near the end of her own. A bit confusing but when you consider they are BOTH time travelers…….

9. Does not like and often refuses to use a gun – but when he does it is usually pretty dramatic. He is or tries to be a pacifist although he is sometimes also known as the War Doctor and a destroyer of worlds. He tries to be peaceful because he knows of what he is capable. This helps make him an extremely interesting and complex character to follow

10. He travels through time and space to right wrongs, help people, mend broken things, resolve disputes, save lives, and solve puzzles. It’s tough to tell if he navigates the TARDIS and lucks into problems along the way or if the TARDIS guides him to where she thinks he will do the most good.

11. The doctor has had a number of enemies. A few tend to repeat. The two most notable are the Daleks and the Cybermen. Each in their own way were originally human-like but managed to cut themselves off from their own Humanity in an effort to achieve an inhuman kind of perfection

12. His home planet is Gallifrey and is… Missing

 

SPOILERS FOR TWICE UPON A TIME

While I very much liked the resolution for the Captain and the twist in the end revealing of whom he was the grandfather, the build up had holes. For one thing, if Bill is to return as one of the last people to whom this Dr Who says goodbye, the only reason I can think would entitle her to this special place of honor is that she was one of the companions who died in his service. However, so did Clara – who they also brought back in a very quick cameo – and both Ponds, and, to be fair, so is Adric from Peter Davison’s 5th doctor, and so was River Song – in my book the best companion – the only companion who was the Doctor’s equal, not to mention his wife. I sorely missed seeing River in this show, especially given Capaldi was shown in The Husbands of River Song, to be the last version she knew.

The template for the glass woman was poorly chosen. She looked so much like Bill that I thought that was going to be the big reveal – that somehow Bill was now living in the future.

When they united Tennant, and Smith’s Dr Whos with John Hurt’s in The Day of the Doctor as The War Doctor they all had good chemistry – riffing off of each others eccentricities with the chronologically "younger" Hurt being the more mature and showing up the child-like mannerisms of the other two. The three were funny and worked well together.

In this recent Twice Upon a Time, while I thought David Bradley did a remarkably good job of bringing William Hartnell’s first Dr Who to life, when he and Capaldi were on screen together it was as though they were on two different sound stages. There was no chemistry between them. The spoke around, about and at each other, but never really to each other. There was no humor and no real conversation. We never get to find out what either thinks of the other. Not a flaw with the actors but, I think, with the script.

This all being said, "mediocre" Dr Who is much like "mediocre" Star Trek, or "so-so" fudge. It’s better than no Dr Who at all and often far better than much of what passed for "good" stuff elsewhere.

The only other major qualm I had about this episode was the apparently obligatory insistence on shoe horning in a reference to the lifestyle Bill leads which is totally inappropriate for what at its heart was intended to be a child’s show.

SUMMARY:

If you want to watch Dr Who by all means. But I would recommend you start with the Christopher Eccleston reboot in 2005 and work your way through in order.

FYI – Tennant is my favorite but Smith has some brilliant ones.

Twice Upon a Time requires some knowledge of Dr Who or much of what is shown will be lost on you.

The best of the reboot Dr Who "stand alones," or at least ones which could be watched with a minimal knowledge of the show and characters, were:

Vincent

Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead

Blink

Father’s Day

Listen

So until the next Fathom special Dr Who event – it was FANTASTIC! GERONIMO! and ALLONS-Y!