A play about the making of a terrible movie makes for great entertainment.
You don’t have to be a fan of the 1963 film “Antony and Cleopatra” to enjoy the Alley Theatre’s production of “Cleo.” Even Cleo’s playwright Lawrence Wright calls it a terrible movie.
“Cleo” is surprisingly funny for a show about an infamous love affair. The play gives a peek into the undeniably human life of glamorous movie star Elizabeth Taylor. Actress Lisa Birnbaum nails Elizabeth Taylor’s stardom struggle between wanting to be left alone but not wanting to be alone. Elizabeth Taylor was the first international star at the dawn of the age of celebrity culture. Cleo tells the story of a critical part of her life and warns of the price and peril of fame. Birnbaum is making an impressive Alley Theatre debut with her performance in Cleo.
Birnbaum as Elizabeth Taylor/Cleopatra, Richard Short as Richard Burton/Marc Antony and Mark Capri as Rex Harrison/Julius Caesar all flawlessly shift from their ancient famed characters to playing 1960s actors.
Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor are played as if they are the reincarnation of Antony and Cleopatra. The juxtaposition of scenes of the destructive ancient romance “on camera” and the scandalous backstage love affair in 1963 show that lust and longing are a tale as old as time. The stars openly question if they are playing their characters in the movie, or if they are being played by their characters. Every scene from Antony courting Cleopatra to Richard Burton drinking in Elizabeth Taylor’s living room is in the shadow of the magnificent columns of an Egyptian palace covered in hieroglyphics.
Rex Harrison (Mark Capri), who plays Caesar is a perfect prima donna — ego-driven and demanding. However, his character isn’t flat. There is a side of him who adores Elizabeth Taylor and plots behind the scenes to manipulate her love life.
Houston audiences are the first to see this play. This world premiere is part of the Alley All New initiative to support contemporary playwrights (sic). Lawrence Wright is a Texas-based author and he has been a staff writer for The New Yorker for over 25 years. He recently made waves for his book and subsequent Hulu series “The Looming Tower.”
The production of “Cleo” has been long anticipated and long delayed. Rehearsals of “Cleo” were underway when the Alley Theatre — just a block away from Buffalo Bayou downtown — took on nearly three million gallons of flood water during Hurricane Harvey. Although they continued rehearsal off-site, they were unable to perform “Cleo.” It was a Christmas miracle that the Alley was back in their theatre district venue in time to perform their annual production of “A Christmas Carol.” Now six months later, the show was scheduled to go on, and audiences can finally enjoy “Cleo.”
“Cleo” is showing through Sunday, April 29. With a valid student ID, tickets are $16 for non-prime performances and $26 for prime performances (Friday and Saturday evenings, Sunday matinees). If purchasing online, use the promo code STUDENT.