Category Archives: General

General subjects of interest.

“Cleo” at Alley Theatre

Last Saturday, I had the distinct pleasure of attending the Alley Theatre’s World Premiere of Cleo, by Austin writer Lawrence Wright.

I’m a subscriber, but I don’t normally schedule my tickets for Saturday. So I was delightfully surprised to find I had been given me a seat dead center in the Hubbard Theatre. Standing to allow people through to sit next to me, I realized they were talking to a couple in front of us, which turned out to be Lawrence Wright and his wife.

A Pulitzer-Prize winning author, he is also a screenwriter, television producer, and sometimes playwright. His six previous plays all have a historical/political bent and have been produced by Arena Stage in Washington, D.C.; the Old Globe in San Diego; off-Broadway and  the Public Theater in New York; and as far away as the Cameri Theater in Tel Aviv.

It is tempting to think of Cleo as something completely outside his usual subject-matter, which often deals with the Middle East. But the play is about a real-life historic and very scandalous love affair between Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton during the filming of Joseph Mankiewicz’s Cleopatra, a hugely expensive movie about the most famous Egyptian queen of all time. The professional, political, and sexual wrangling on and off screen documented in the play is not that different from the politics of world ideologies.

I am old enough to remember some of the scandalous headlines that my mother tried to shield me from, while gorging on the details herself. I am an avid movie fan, currently teaching Film Appreciation classes. I also know enough about the body of work between Taylor, Burton and Rex Harrison, and Liz’s personal tragedies and many marriages to have had a preconceived notion of what the play was about. I must say, I was delightfully validated and surprised.

Wright has taken the stuff of tabloids and woven in the tragic death of Liz’s great love Mike Todd, her subsequent co-opting of her friend Debbie Reynolds’ husband Eddie Fisher, and her sometimes pathetic need for validation as a serious actress, to paint a vivid and riveting picture of a film icon we all think we know. We meet her after these events and as she sets out on arguably the most ambitious film of her career, supported by the overly protective Fisher and Joe Mankiewicz, the gentle and caring director.  For Mankiewicz, this is the grandest project of his illustrious career (only a few years after being blacklisted in Hollywood) and he must juggle not only the needs of his three very different stars, but Fisher’s as well.

Against the politics of a dying studio system, a failing marriage, and an apocalyptic sexual attraction, Wright (under the brilliant direction of Bob Balaban) manages to give us a truly human and heartbreaking tale of two beautifully talented and self-destructive people.

Liz, a bona fide star since she was child, is terrified to be playing opposite two legitimate actors: Rex Harrison, the pompous aging film star, and Richard Burton the scrappy, alcoholic Welshman.  She fully expects to be taken to school by these celebrated stage actors. Instead, she becomes the object of a ridiculous bet based on sexual conquest. The fact that Harrison is condescendingly oblivious to how ridiculous his aspirations are makes him comic relief.

Three major supporting characters bring warmth and humor to the play. Mark Capri plays Harrison with all the dignity and ego of an aging icon, who cannot see that his character of Caesar is not the star of the film. Brian Dykstra, as Joe Mankiewicz, is a teddy bear of a man, balancing all these egos and pyrotechnics with a humanity that is reaffirming. Adam Gibbs plays Eddie Fisher, not as the smooth and fashionable crooner we remember from photos and album covers, but as a swaggering street-wise Rat Pack wannabe. Some of that personae is warranted from the often pandering and constantly needy character Wright has written. But no effort is made to make Gibbs look or speak like Fisher. It is only when he starts to sing (and sell) some of Fisher’s ballads that we finally understand why he was the inevitable casting choice from the Alley Company.

Lisa Birnbaum seems to be channeling Taylor on the stage. Make-up and costumes play their part, but she genuinely looks and behaves like Liz Taylor, alternately sniveling and needy, and then the diva star. Her postures and hand gestures are not imitations of Liz, but the embodiment. Her voice captures the same lilt and inflections that made Liz distinctive, without the irritating tendency toward shrillness. Her performance rings so true, that after the first few scenes I stopped thinking of her as anyone but Liz.

Richard Short plays Richard Burton. We see a dissipated, raunchy, alcoholic street kid who has parlayed his very real acting talent into a way to live a wanton and careless life. Forever straying from his long-suffering wife, but firm in the belief that she will never leave him for his philandering. What Wright makes clear in the text is that Burton lusts for Liz, like any other conquest, but never intends to fall victim to that passion. What we fail to get from Short’s portrayal of Richard Burton is the tragic waste of a brilliant actor’s gifts and his self-loathing that drives him to try and destroy everything good in himself and in this new and fragile relationship. We get a lusty, gorgeous hunk, but not the brilliant Shakespearean actor. He plays the doomed relationship and not the character traits that will make it so.

In their scenes together, Short and Birnbaum bring real fire and passion to the stage. The difference between their performances can be summed up in one observation. Birnbaum is always generous in her playing, and not afraid to turn her back to the audience and let the other actor be the focus. In the pivotal climactic scene near the end when Liz is preparing to leave with her alternately rejected and retrieved husband Fisher, she is blocked to spend much of the scene on steps with her back to us. This is Short’s scene, where he must break through the barriers and try to make her understand, and finally admit that he loves her, very much against his will. He should be trying to make her turn around and look at him. Instead, he faces downstage toward the audience doing what I call ‘TV acting’. It is possible that director Bob Balaban blocked the scene this way. But considering the effectiveness of the visual pictures throughout, I find that hard to believe. It felt more like an actor trying to get as much mileage as possible out of his big scene.

Nevertheless, this is a rousing success and no doubt meant for greater glory in New York. I congratulated the glowing Mr. Wright, who very kindly used his own pen to sign my program.

 

 

Cindy Crawford and Christabel

 

My cats wake me up at 5:30 every morning.  I suppose that’s partly my fault, but I don’t know how.

They became my alarm clock some years ago. Unfortunately, I can’t turn them off on weekends or use their noses as a snooze button.

It starts with Cindy Crawford, my white and black calico with the beauty mark beside her mouth. She meanders over the contours of my body to then circle and coil herself into the nook between my chin and shoulder. Her hot breath alternating with my own, she revs that engine in her throat and chest that passes for a purr. Then she starts to knead my flesh with her front (un-declawed) paws. Sometimes the tiny pricks of pain are bearable and elicit only a slight groan from my befogged brain and throat. Other times, after she has sharpened them on everything from the backyard fence to the nineteenth-century Amish sideboard, they pierce my epidermis like needles into balloons, causing me to surge to one side of the bed, sleepily flinging her across the room.

But when we synchronize our throaty exhalations and become the ying and yang of pur/snoring, it is a peaceful and lovely world.

About this time, Christabel, the elder of my two cats, tobogans onto the bed (often from the peak of a piece of furniture) and nestles on my back slope, causing me to contort into a question mark. When at last the position is unsustainable and I slip the bonds of their embrace onto my side, then Christabel walks the ridgeline of my slightly bent legs and establishes a campsite at the summit of my hip. There she will sit, staring at me with her laser-like obsidian glare until at last it pierces my brain. If, at length, I roll onto my back, it is slowly so that she can navigate the avalanche of my hip and abdomen to surmount and nestle between the mounds of my breasts. From that valley she continues to peer at me.

If I manage to keep my eyes closed through all this, Christabel extends her paw to just above my chin or nose and ever so delicately pokes me with one claw. After a couple of minutes of this affectionate prodding, my eyes at last come open and I glance toward the clock to see that it is exactly 5:30.

I struggle into a sitting position as they slalom down the hall to lead the parade toward the finish line in the kitchen. Once I’ve stumbled into the den and turned on the kitchen light, both cats take their positions on their respective area rugs and patiently wait to be rewarded. Christabel emitting a sharp and somewhat discordant feline version of “Well?” every two seconds until I have at length rinsed their dishes, paper-toweled them dry, spooned out exactly half a can of fancy moist cat food into each, and bestowed it directly in front of one then the other.

As they begin to delicately partake of their gourmet feast, I stumble once again to my disheveled bed and fling myself onto the mattress and beneath the comforter for two hours of the deepest sleep that I’ve probably gotten all night.

I guess, in a way, their breakfast is the snooze button. Because just about 7:20, we start the whole process all over again, except they don’t get fed and I do end up in the shower.

Christabel was the ugly kitten sibling of Maud, a pale grey ball of fluff that was my one true love. They were the last of a litter and I felt I could not take one without the other. I brought both home the December after I bought my first house.

Maud was asthmatic and like a sickly child became my focus and my favorite. While she lived, she was sole beneficiary of my queen-sized bed. Even when Cindy arrived a year later, a much bigger and more adventurous cat, she deferred to Maud. I still hear her perfectly pitched and harmonious purr in my dreams. She disappeared without a trace in 2012. I cried almost as much and as long over her loss as I did when my mother died two years later.

It was only after she had been gone for some time and Christabel and I had mourned deeply and separately that she and Cindy began to take turns trying to comfort me. It has evolved into a loving communal, almost sensual co-dependence of living beings in a shared space.

We have aged together and settled into our little rituals and loving patterns much as any trio of friends might. They are now sixteen and fifteen years old. The question becomes, what shall I do to fill the hollow formed by their little bodies, when they too are gone.

The Father, trailer

Clara Ploux, Artistic Director of Luciole International Theatre Company, interviewed me and put together this trailer for our upcoming reading of The Father, by Florian Zeller. The event is part of the French Cultures Festival in Houston, sponsored by the French Embassy. The still photos used were publicity stills taken by Pin Lim of cast members Charles Bailey, Jennifer Doctorovich, and Rachel Ollagnon. The reading will be presented on Saturday, 3/24/18 at 8:00 pm at the MATCH.

https://drive.google.com/file/d/1J-9Iv0lweqKzLi35XL8j3UdTNycxGsQg/view?usp=sharing_eil&ts=5aac4f6a

 

The Father, a reading for Luciole

Luciole International Theatre has asked me to direct a reading of Florian Zeller’s The Father (translated by Christopher Hampton) as part of the French Culture Festival. The play is a lyrical, alternately sweet and scary play about Alzheimer’s, from the viewpoint of an older man suffering with it. His relationship with his daughter and other caretakers seems to be an ever changing and fluid roller coaster of emotion and perception.

As some of you may know, my own father suffered from dementia in the last couple of years of his life. It was a difficult and delicate situation and a daily challenge for those of us in his life.

I’m delighted that Charlie Bailey, Jennifer Doctorovich, Rachel Ollagnon, Jon Egging, and Heidi Hinkel have all agreed to do this lovely but challenging project. The above photo was taken by Pin Lim. Clara Ploux, the Artistic Director of Luciole, is designing projections and sound, so it will be a bit more ambitious than the average reading.

Hope those of you in town for the festival will make the effort to see this worthy show. It performs in Theater 1 at the MATCH, in mid-town Houston, on Saturday 3/24/18, at
8:00 pm.

For ticket information, please go to the MATCH website:

https://matchouston.org/events/father

 

MST-The Big Do

Main Street Theater’s fundraiser, termed The Big Do! was held last Friday (2/2/2018) at the MATCH in mid-town Houston. The theater made use of one large gallery area, the midway, and one of the proscenium theater spaces, which kept people moving about, eating, drinking, and mingling with other participants. Overall, I’d say it was a huge success.

Ellen Sanborn (with me in the picture above) was the staff coordinator on this effort and really pulled a groundhog out of the proverbial hat on this one. Generally, everyone came in cocktail attire, but the range of fabulous and quirky hats made the event even more fun.

The event featured a silent auction with a host of wonderful items ranging from a child’s peddle-powered vehicle, to a long-weekend stay in a log-cabin condo in Tennessee, to custom boots.  There was also a fabulous basket of items for lovers of Jane Austen, which included an action figure. Alas, I did not win that auction item, but I did prevail on one of the designer handbags.

There was a wine lottery, where you could pay $20 and then draw for which of many bottles of intriguing wines you would take home.

The finger food and hors d’oeuvres were delicious and imaginative, including a desert table of donut holes and various toppings. The bar was open–need I say more.

Later in the evening, several fabulous vacations were auctioned off at what seemed actually reasonable rates.  Then the auctioneer got creative with some large and small ways to support the theater’s youth activities. When he opened the support auction (with no actual object to take home other than the knowledge that you’d done something significant for kids) the suggested opening bid of $15,000 was taken up by one incredibly generous woman. The bids went down incrementally from there and eventually everyone reached a level of giving with which they were comfortable. The fact that the first stalwart bidder met the entire fundraising goal for the event was not lost on anyone.

Local celebrity volunteers and members of the Theater for Youth company performed an original sketch that kept us laughing.

The event honored local Houston hero Jim ‘Mattress Mack’ McIngvale for his ongoing philanthropy in Houston, which was so vividly demonstrated during the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. Completely in keeping with his persona, Mack showed up to the gala event in khakis, polo shirt and red bomber jacket. The highlight of the evening may have been his brief and articulate speech about Hurricane Harvey and the joy he and his employees found in opening the doors of their superstores to flood refugees. Also, totally in keeping with his personality, he was the highest bidder on one of the luxury bedding items.

All in all, it was a delightful evening that paid suitable homage to a truly admirable Houstonian, gave us an excuse to celebrate ourselves and our theater, and made money to support the ongoing educational efforts of Main Street Theater. Not a bad way to spend a Friday night.

 

 

There You Are, a short film

As I announced not long ago, I was cast in a short film being directed by Lisa Donato, written by Jen Richards. I travelled to Austin the end of last week and we rehearsed and shot the entire film over four days.

Jen Richards is a transgender actress from Los Angeles who met Lisa Donato at South by Southwest (SXSW) film festival last year in Austin. They hit it off and struck up a longer conversation that led to Jen sharing a draft of a short screenplay loosely based on her life and experience as a person who transitioned from a man to a woman and the repercussions on her relationship with her family.

Lisa, who is an award-winning short film director, was intrigued by the premise and they immediately started working on refining the script and putting the funding and production crew together.  That was last September, believe it or not.

Lisa’s partner, Heather Nevill and Danielle Skidmore became the Executive Producers. Mickel Picco came on as the production AD.

I auditioned to play the mother through my agent Cat Hardy-Romanelli at Pastorini Bosby in late November, was officially cast in late December and arrangements were made for me to do the shoot in Austin under a SAG contract.

My character, Sandra, is a conservative Texas woman who is the mother of a transgender daughter, who has not been home since her transition. My own mother is dying and Jason/Jessica has been sent for as the end approaches. I’m more than a bit controlling and my way of dealing with grief (in all directions) is to try to control everything, even to the amount of fried onion rings on the top of a casserole. This translates to pressure for Jessica to pretend to be Jason for grandma. But the truth of the situation is that nothing is in my control. While my disapproval has been made abundantly clear, having lost my mother, I must find a way to start to accept my child as the woman she has become.

There is a lot more to the story, but that’s not about me, so hey…

Jen Richards’ script is very strong, her portrayal of Jessica is touching, and the film is powerfully directed by Lisa Donato, with imaginative and evocative cinematography  by Ava Benjamin Shorr.

I had a blast on the shoot and loved working with these folks. Everyone was focused and professional and almost universally congenial.

I also got a chance to work again with Jo Perkins, who played my mother. A very long time ago, I played a small role (Candy) in a production of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest at Country Playhouse (now Queensbury Theater). Jo played Nurse Ratched.  I was a recent Sam Houston graduate and Jo had also gone to SHSU.  She was very kind to a fellow actor just starting out and I have held her in high esteem these last forty years. To make things even more convivial, her husband Charlie Bailey came along and we three usually congregated in the hotel bar in the evenings.

Unfortunately, I had to miss the wrap party Monday night in order to get back in time to teach my Film Appreciation class in Houston. But there may be another party in our future.  Look to see this very affecting film at SXSW later this year and at other film festivals around the country.

 

Short Film, “There You Are!”

I just got the call from Cat at Pastorini/Bosby Talent letting me know that I’ve booked a major role in a short film shooting in Austin in two weeks. I’m very excited.  The subject matter is slightly controversial, but the script is touching and lovely.

Among the cast, I’ll be working with Jo Perkins for the first time in many years. Back in the late 1970s as a young actress right out of college, I played a small role in a production of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest opposite Jo as Nurse Ratchet.  It will be great to work with her again.

I’ll keep you posted as to the adventure, the results, and when and where this film may be available for viewing.