Playwright Lawrence Wright joins director Bob Balaban to stage Cleo, chronicling the titanic love affair between Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton that started during the filming of the 1963 movie Cleopatra, and the worldwide scandal that followed. Cleo plays at the Alley Theatre’s Hubbard Theatre April 6 through April 29, 2018.
Taylor and Burton’s relationship brought condemnation from the Vatican and the U.S. Congress, and opened the age of paparazzi and tabloid celebrity, ensuring that the names Burton and Taylor would always be associated with the greatest sex scandal in film and ancient history. With lavish sets and costumes, Cleo goes behind the scenes and explores what sparked the sexual revolution in Rome in 1963.
“We’re thrilled to welcome back Larry and Bob for the premiere of Cleo,” said the Alley’s interim artistic director, James Black. The cast and creative team was deep into rehearsals and building sets and costumes when Hurricane Harvey hit Houston. We knew we had to find a spot in the season to bring them all back and produce this brilliant work for our audiences. What better way to ring in spring than with a writer, director, and love affair, all of epic proportions.”
Cleo playwright Lawrence Wright is an author, screenwriter, and playwright. He has been a staff writer for The New Yorker since 1992, where he has won two National Magazine Awards. He is the author of ten books, one of which, The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11, won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction, and was named by Time magazine as one of the 100 greatest nonfiction books ever written. The book was made into a TV series, The Looming Tower, and premiered on Hulu on February 28, 2018. His bestselling book Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief (2013), was nominated for the National Book Award and won the Investigative Reporters and Editors Award. In April, Knopf will publish his next book, a personal history titled God Save Texas.
Wright grew up in Dallas and is a longtime resident of Austin. He is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and the Society of American Historians. He also serves as the keyboard player in the Austin-based blues band, WhoDo.
Acclaimed director and actor Bob Balaban (Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Gosford Park and multiple films with Christopher Guest including Waiting for Guffman and Best in Show) directs. Balaban directed and produced the long running off-Broadway play The Exonerated which won the Lucille Lortel, Outer Critics Circle, and Drama Desk awards. Other Off-Broadway directing credits include Arthur Kopit’s Y2K for the Manhattan Theatre Club at the Lucille Lortel, Manuscript at the Daryl Roth Theatre, Vick’s Boy at Rattlestick Theater, and Family Secrets at 37 Arts. He directed the world premiere of Lucy Boyle’s The Blue Deep at Williamstown Theatre Festival.
The Cleo cast includes Lisa Birnbaum (American Repertory Theatre’s Sense & Sensibility, Off-Broadway: Arielle in F#%king Up Everything). Birnbaum plays opposite Richard Short (Mary Kills People, HBO’s Vinyl) as Richard Burton. The cast also includes Mark Capri (The Roundabout’s On Approval, Broadway’s Private Lives) as Rex Harrison, Brian Dykstra (Repertory Theatre of St. Louis’ The Humans, Broadway’s Lucky) as Joe Mankiewicz and Adam Gibbs (Alley’s Ether Dome, Our Town) as Eddie Fisher. Rounding out the cast is Estèe Burks (The Landing Theatre’s In Darfur, Obsidian Theater’s For Colored Girls), Tommy Stuart, Thomas Valdez and Morgan Starr (Main Street Theater’s Grand Concourse, Stages’ Miss Teen).
The Cleo creative team includes scenic designer Richard Hoover, costume designer Alejo Vietti, lighting designer David Weiner, sound designers Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen, assistant director Brandon Weinbrenner, stage managers Hethyr Verhoef and Kristen Larson, casting by Stewart/Whitley, and with additional casting by Adam Belcuore, CSA.
Cleo is sponsored in part by associate producers Jerry & Nanette Finger Family Foundation, Trini Mendenhall, and Christina and Stephen C. Morse; and Supporting Sponsors Bank of America, Rand Group and the Edgerton Foundation New Play Award. The Alley Theatre is supported by the 2017-2018 season sponsor United Airlines, the official airline of the Alley Theatre; Four Seasons Hotel Houston, the official hotel of the Alley Theatre; and Lynn Wyatt.
Performances of Cleo are Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Cleo is recommended for mature audiences.
The Alley Theatre will also present Artist TalkBacks following the Saturday, April 14 (2:30 p.m.) and Tuesday, April 17 (7:30 p.m.) performances of Cleo. These discussions will feature cast and artistic staff. Additionally, The Alley Theatre will also present an Alley In Context with playwright Lawrence Wright and director Bob Balaban following the Cleo performance on Tuesday, April 10. Artist TalkBacks and Alley In Context discussions are free and open to the public.
Tickets to Cleo are now on sale and start at $26. Discounted tickets are available for military and senior, and any student, regardless of age, with a valid student ID for designated performances. Tickets are available at Alleytheatre.org or by calling the box office at 713-220-5700.
The Alley Theatre, one of America’s leading not-for-profit theatres, is a nationally recognized performing arts company led by Interim Artistic Director James Black and Managing Director Dean R. Gladden. The Alley produces up to 16 plays each year in its newly renovated theatre, ranging from the best current work, to re-invigorated classic plays, to new plays by contemporary writers. The Alley is home to a Resident Company of actors. In addition, the Alley engages theatre artists of every discipline — actors, designers, composers and playwrights — who work on individual productions throughout each season as visiting artists.
The renovation of the Hubbard Theatre at the Alley was completed in October 2015 — and created a new 774-seat state-of-the-art performance venue. Matched with the newly renovated 296-seat Neuhaus Theatre, the Alley offers nearly 500 performances each season. The company reaches over 200,000 people each year through its performance and education programs. Its audience enrichment programs include pre-show and post-performance talks, events and workshops for audience members of all ages.
An interview with ‘Cleo’ star Lisa Birnbaum
By Randall Jobe
MONTROSE STAR: I see you are making your Alley Theatre debut. Have you visited Houston before?
LISA BIRNBAUM: Nope! When I arrived just before Harvey this fall it was the first time I’d even been in Texas!
MS: Where is your home?
LB: I live in Brooklyn right now. New York City based.
MS: Your resume cites work in multiple theaters in multiple cities. Do you have a permanent home theater?
LB: I don’t. I work regionally a lot but all of those productions are cast out of New York. It’s rare for theaters these days to have resident companies like The Alley. I suppose it’d be kind of dream to have a home base theatre in which to develop plays, but it’s also wonderful to lean into the Gypsy lifestyle of going wherever the work takes you.
MS: How did you get started as an actress? What influenced you most to want to perform?
LB: I danced for many years and the stage was always very easily my happiest place. But I knew I never wanted to be a professional dancer. I think I presumed that I would go into a more academic profession. However, my freshman year of college (at Tufts University) I was helping bring The Vagina Monologues to the school and they couldn’t find anyone to do the monologue that is meant to be in an English accent. I suggested I could do it, and thus my love affair with the stage began. Blessed be Eve Ensler!
MS: How did the opportunity to play the legendary Elizabeth Taylor come about?
LB: I often help out with auditions with the wonderful casting director who was working out of NYC for this project. I had been working with him a lot and got a text that was like, “Hey, wanna audition for a play in Houston…it’s to be Elizabeth Taylor.” Then he told me who was directing and who wrote it. I didn’t blink. Of course I wanted to audition. I then spent as much time as possible diving into all things Elizabeth. And when I walked into my audition, I was so charmed by Bob and Larry. I guess I did something right!
MS: Was it a daunting task considering how familiar audiences will be with her works and her personae?
MS: What was the most difficult part of portraying her?
LB: Her voice. She has a dialect all her own. And my job is to embody it. But damn, it’s fun to play with now.
MS: What was your favorite?
LB: Perhaps my favorite thing about portraying her is how generous she really was. Thinking about how wholeheartedly she loved everyone in her life. How freely she gave her love. It’s inspiring to me.
MS: With the show’s focus on the filming of Cleopatra, how much study did you give the film?
LB: Well, I’ve watched the film many times, of course, and read and read all about the nightmare that it was to create. That research is incredibly helpful because it sets up all the given circumstances of what was going on at the time. That said, for the stage we’ve had to adapt certain things instead of copying exactly what was done to make it more dynamic. Also, for me, I realized pretty quickly the real meat of the play is about Elizabeth’s relationship with Richard so that became the focus of my deep dive, shall we say. The movie is the magnificent backdrop to the real story, which is Liz and Dick’s undeniable romance.
MS: Do you feel as if you share any character traits with Elizabeth?
LB: Absolutely. We both love Bloody Mary’s, men, food, sparkly things and speaking our mind.
MS: Are you working with the actor, Richard Short, who plays Richard Burton for the first time?
LB: Yes. I heard about Richard Short exactly one week before I got here in March.
MS: How has that chemistry been?
LB: Honestly, terrific. He’s the best damn scene partner I’ve ever had. I trust him completely up there and I think that shows.
MS: What is your life like when you are not on the stage?
LB: Ha! I watch way too much fixer-upper. Gosh, do I love those renovation geniuses. And I spend as much time as I can reading, writing, generally reveling and protesting (!) these days. Jesus, we’re living in some seriously heinous times. I do try and devote my energy when I’m not acting to where it counts.
MS: What is something that would surprise people about you?
LB: I’m born and raised in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. I get a little tipsy and I get a lot southern. People don’t usually presume that I’m a southern girl.
MS: Is there a future project lined up after the production of Cleo?
LB: Not right now. It’s back to the New York City grind for me! That’s the life!