The Existence of Love in the Hollywood World: A Review of Cleo by Lawrence Wright

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YES Prep Southeast senior, Valeria Ordaz (pictured on left), wrote the following review after attending the world premiere of Cleo by Lawrence Wright at the Alley Theatre

Cleo, a play by Lawrence Wright, will always be close to heart because I was able to share it with someone who I have been looking up to since I was born, my dad. Ever since I was little, my dad and I have always sat together twice a month to watch films from the 1950s and from other different eras because he has always told me that “The only thing that no one will be able to take away from me is my knowledge and my love for art.” So, whenever I saw my dad tear up at the end of the play and leaving from the Alley Theatre with his chest up all proud, it made me happy. Not only that, but I got to watch him call his father to tell him about his experience at the theatre and how he felt like a child again, which is something I will never forget. The beauty of watching Cleo, a play by Lawrence Wright, is not only in the live action portrayal of the most scandalous affair of the 20th century between Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton but more the fact that everyone in that Alley Theatre was transported for a few hours to the world of Hollywood glamour.  In the world premiere of Cleo, Lawrence Wright revives and brings back the romance between the two most loved celebrities during that time: Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. The play is set during the filming of the movie Cleopatra by the director Joseph L. Mankiewicz, and Wright portrayed how Elizabeth Taylor fell in love with Richard Burton behind the scenes, just like Cleopatra fell in love with Marc Anthony. Wright’s play shows how even though they had everything in our eyes—such as money, diamonds, multiple mansions, and fame, they both fell victim to the most powerful thing in this world: love. Cleo teaches us that we are all human in our desire to be loved, but it is up to us if we allow the love to change who we are or if we allow it to leave us feeling empty.

Moreover, this play is so unique and marvelous in the way it captivates the audience the minute they enter the theatre. Once inside, the first thing that captures the audience’s attention would be the enormous golden Egyptian palace door, as if it were the real movie set for Cleopatra. The second thing that will stand out is the amount of costume changes and the amazing stage props, signaling the different scenes and settings. To create time for costume changes, director Bob Balaban had Adam Gibbs who plays Eddie Fisher (Elizabeth’s husband at the time) sing or deliver monologues to show the audience how much pain was caused by Elizabeth and Richard’s relationship.

Furthermore, Wright developed the relationship between Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in such a beautiful way. There is a soliloquy where Lisa Birnbaum, playing Elizabeth Taylor, was looking at herself in the mirror and grabbing all her possessions to show how afraid and empty she felt even when she had everything she wanted in life. One could also see how much pain she was in after her only true love, Mike Todd, passed away. Later, the play showed how Richard Burton filled that gap in her life, changing the way Elizabeth viewed life and giving her this new excitement she had not felt in a while.

In the play, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton get into an argument because Eddie comes to learn of the affair and tells Elizabeth that he would never take her back. This fight is triggered when Elizabeth finds out that Richard was not going to leave Sybil for her. The way Lisa Birnbaum and Richard Short depict the fight is incredible. They argue, throw things, and in the end, Elizabeth tries to commit suicide because she felt betrayed. In the next scene, Wright displays Marc Anthony’s death scene, correlating what was happening in real life between Elizabeth and Richard. That is when one could see a change in Richard’s character from the start of the play to the end, in the way that he fell for Elizabeth and left Sybil to be with her. I was astonished by the fact that the lines of the film Cleopatra spoke the unspoken between them, changing them for the better.

In conclusion, this play is one of those plays in which you come in one way and leave different person. I loved that I was able to forget everything for a little while, and I loved the fact that I was able to watch it next to my dad who was Elizabeth Taylor’s number one fan, as well as school peers. This was all thanks to a DonorsChoose grant that my English teacher, Mr. Sheridan, was able to get for us. This play was beautiful in so many ways, and I was blessed to be part of the audience of such marvelous show. I am really hoping that they can one day take it to Broadway and keep showing it because the story of the affair between Elizabeth and Richard Burton is a tale that needs to be known. Everyone deserves a chance to relieve it or experience it for the first time because theatrical moments like these do not come along as often as they should.

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