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By John Quinn
This week we once again participated in the mass hysteria on the passing of an entertainment icon. Every time the news cycle stops dead in its tracks for an untimely death, I mull the possibility that our decadent obsession with the cult of celebrity enables famous people to behave badly. Celebrities are larger than life; how else can one stay in the spotlight if one doesn’t live an over-the-top lifestyle?
March 23 marks the first anniversary of Elizabeth Taylor’s death. I don’t remember then the rending of garments and gnashing of teeth that we’ve experienced this week, maybe because the last bright star of the Hollywood studio system had been in ill health for years and was, in the words of my Irish-born great-grandmother, “old enough to die.” Since Feb. 27 would have been her 80th birthday, the fertile imaginations of The Ringwald Theatre are commemorating the actress with two plays performed in repertory. First up is the world premiere of Kim Carney’s comedy, “Elizabeth the Beautiful.”
This “what if” fantasy explores the transformation of Taylor from self-obsessed personality to generous philanthropist and ardent advocate. The time is 1978, near the election of then-husband John Warner to the U. S. Senate. The place is an up-scale Virginia hotel where Elizabeth is recovering from back surgery. During an unfortunate encounter between throat and chicken bone, Elizabeth sees her life flash before her in the form of a Dickensian visitation from the Ghosts of Marriages Past. The unlikely Jacob Marley and master of ceremonies for the intervention is twice-husband Richard Burton. If there is a moral to the story, it is that real beauty is more than skin deep, and a contemplative individual can find unexpected depths of beauty if one mines deep enough.
But there’s a catch; there usually is at The Ringwald. Elizabeth is not “the beautiful” anymore; she is a big, blousy, loud, foul-mouthed, booze-swilling harridan. She is, in short, played by company stalwart Joe Bailey.
Female impersonation is larger-than-life entertainment. It includes exotics wigs, exaggerated make-up and exotic fashion statements. There tends to be a fair amount of bawdy badinage. Female impersonation of a cultural icon is going to be, at its best, burlesque; travesty, in every sense of the word, at its worst. Here, fortunately, we have burlesque; we can just sit back and enjoy the absurdity.
Parody, though, requires an element of truth between the subject skewered and the comedy. It is hard for this reviewer to reconcile the public persona of Elizabeth Taylor with scary private one depicted here. In the text, Elizabeth admits to not being a great actress. The Jekyll-Hyde transformation the play implies was worthy of another Oscar – had anybody known about it. That being said, Bailey’s campy performance is consistently on the mark.
Mike McGettigan as Richard Burton and Patrick O’Conner Cronin as The Man – a market basket of selected portraits of husbands and friends – take “Elizabeth the Beautiful” even farther “out there.” While Cronin changes voice and body language with each change of Vince Kelly’s nifty costumes, he can’t disguise the underlying theme that Taylor’s men tended to share the same foibles. McGettigan has all the elegance of the iconic Burton – and certainly the voice – but, given Bailey’s caricature of Taylor I miss the rather pompous Shakespearian actor delivery Burton even brought to TV interviews.
Director Bryan Lark deftly handles the unexpectedly sensitive turn in the plot, and the play, performed in one act, is a neatly tied bundle of fun. Now if only we could let the Jacksons and Ledgers and Houstons and, yes, the Taylors, lead the private lives they would choose, rather than the ones we choose for them.
Maybe it’s time we all just get a life.
‘Elizabeth the Beautiful’
The Ringwald Theatre, 22742 Woodward Ave., Ferndale. Plays in repertory through March 12. $10-20. 248-545-5545. http://www.TheRingwald.com