When it premiered in 1962, Cleopatra was the most expensive film ever made, and Elizabeth Taylor was the first actress to be paid a cool million for such a role. The film itself is anticlimactic—I don’t remember much aside from Liz wearing fabulous costumes and makeup. Lawrence Wright’s Cleo, a world premiere now on at the Alley, similarly forgets about the film and focuses more on the drama behind it—especially the tumultuous affair between Taylor and co-star Richard Burton.
Aside from the marvelous sets and fascinating conversations—and there are many of them, and they ring true thanks to Wright’s strong writing—Cleo forces the audience to consider the nature of stardom and the pressures of celebrity. There is a lot of humor in this play about an affair that brought a lot of people pain, and one learns about Burton’s rough Welsh upbringing as well as Taylor’s privileged but regulated life as a film star in the studio system. We have no stars now that have the glamour or charisma of either Taylor or Burton, so it’s a moment worth remembering, and The Alley’s production of this era glimmers as brightly as Cleopatra’s golden headdress.
Yet going into the theater, I was wondering how the leading actress would handle Liz Taylor’s distinctive way of speaking. I needn't have worried; Lisa Birnbaum nailed it and excelled with the distinctive mannerisms as well. It’s hard to play someone as iconic and striking as Taylor, and I was pleasantly surprised by how convincing Birnbaum’s performance turned out to be.
Richard Short also mesmerized as Richard Burton, with the chemistry between the two almost palpable. It’s easy to see how the two actors, fueled by fame and alcohol, were part of the perfect storm of transgressions that led to both divorcing their spouses and marrying each other—twice. Such is the realm of Hollywood legend—when Elizabeth Taylor was the first real international celebrity and individuals' private lives became public knowledge. Taylor’s in-play phone conversation with the Los Angeles Times gossip columnist Hedda Hopper revealed her negotiated relationship with the press as she manages her professional as well as her personal life.
I will admit how much I enjoyed watching Liz and Dick drink, flirt, make out, fall in love, argue, and even attempt suicide (mirroring, in a sort of cheap way, the drama they are playing out in the film as Anthony and Cleopatra). But, for my money, two other performances upstage all those antics combined. First, Mark Capri is absolutely perfect as a disgruntled Rex Harrison, whose presence in the film is eroded as money runs out and Taylor and Burton become more front-and-center in the movie’s production. Not only does he look like the spitting image of the English actor, I promise by the rain in Spain that he talks exactly like him, too. He has a limited role in this play, but I loved every minute he was on stage.
Still, the real star of “Cleo” is the superlative Adam Gibbs, whose portrayal of singer/actor Eddie Fisher steals the show. He conveys the somewhat shallow and imperfect relationship between Taylor and his character alongside Fisher’s direct and oh-so-American way of speaking and seeing things (a sharp contrast with bad-boy Byronic hero that is Richard Burton).
As if that weren't enough, Gibbs has the pipes to deliver the songs that made Fisher so popular and famous—something that might be lost on contemporary audiences that are not familiar with the Eddie Fisher/Debbie Reynolds/Elizabeth Taylor scandal that resulted in him leaving Reynolds for Liz. I was impressed with Gibbs when I first saw him in 4th Wall’s production of “Lobby Hero,” and I think he is one of the best actors in Houston. His solos alone are worth seeing this show, and that's to say nothing of how he makes Eddie Fisher as compelling as anyone else on the Egyptian set of Cleopatra—truly a feat without the help of another character's Roman body armor or a lusty sex scene. Plain and simple, it's movie magic without the cameras.
Thru April 26. Tickets from $26. Alley Theatre, 615 Texas Ave. 713-220-5700. More info and tickets at alleytheatre.org.