Category Archives: Theater

Theater projects past and present.

“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.

 

 

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.

 

 

Miss Bennet Will Rise Again!

As many of you know, Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley was a joy to work on, and I was justifiably proud of the product.  Most of the magazines and family-friendly publications that covered it have been glowing in their reports.  Unfortunately, the two major papers in town were not as liberal in their praise. [Everett Evans, why oh why did you retire?] But the patrons won out. Suffice it to say that there was a firestorm on Facebook about the reviews and the very different response of our loyal audience and new patrons brought to MST for the first time. I tried to stay out of it.

The run has been very successful, with sold out previews and a near capacity opening weekend. Subsequently, word-of-mouth was so good that the run quickly began to sell out. So performances were added. This week before Christmas has several additional performances, which sold out almost immediately.

But the best news reached me at the MST Christmas party.  Apparently, Rebecca Udden, MST’s Artistic Director tried to come back to see the show mid-run and could not get in, because even the house seats had been sold. It was the feather that finally pushed her to commit to reviving the show next year.

When we close this week-end, Ryan McGettigan’s lovely set will not be demolished. Instead, it will be dismantled and preserved as much as possible so that we can reuse the glorious window unit next year.

The cast is justifiably over-the-moon, as they have been told that they will all be invited to reprise their roles next year. Barring anyone being cast in a Broadway show, I think we will all be working together again in 2018.

It just goes to show you that Jane Austen can even conquer a mediocre review. Perhaps, they will send someone more in touch with the Houston audience next year.

Miss Bennet Opens at MST

Well, the show is open and I’m feeling withdrawal pains.

We had four virtually sold-out previews and an extra rehearsal to adjust the timing and secure the laughs in the final show. Then on Saturday, November 11, 2017 we opened to a lively sell-out audience. People on the waiting list got in because a few regular subscribers were unable to use their tickets.

Energy was high and responses were quick. That almost telekinetic connection between audience and performers was especially evident.  There were obvious Jane Austen fans in the crowd who chortled at every inside joke. At one especially sweet moment, there was an audible sigh from a group in the audience. That response and energy only fed the sharpness of the performances.

Three reviewers have now seen the show. Two reviews have been published and we expect one from the Houston Chronicle shortly.

The Houston Press gave a generally favorable, if slightly tepid review. The main objection being that like Jane Austen’s books and most romantic comedies the ending is a bit predictable. The girl gets the boy. Spoiler alert! That’s what we want.

http://www.houstonpress.com/arts/review-miss-bennet-christmas-at-pemberley-at-main-street-theater-9956888

On the other hand, Doni Wilson of Houstonia magazine loved the show.

https://www.houstoniamag.com/articles/2017/11/13/main-street-theater-jane-austen-pride-prejudice-christmas-at-pemberley-review

We will let the ticket-buying public decide. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that this could become a perennial favorite for Main Street Theater audiences.

The show runs through mid-December, so contact MST for tickets online at mainstreettheater.com.  Or call the box office at 713-524-6706.