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A CurtainUp Review


We sailed the Caribbean and the Spanish Main
El Dorado burned in our brains
Moons would wax and moons would wane
The less we found
The More we claimed .

--- Francis Cuttle, a rich plantation owner who insists that his claim to the land negates Superintendent Edward Despard's plan to resettle the English subjects according to a treaty between England and Spain. This difference leads to Despard's being ousted and eventually landing in debtor's prison.
Will Badgett and Steven Ratazzi
Will Badgett and Steven Ratazzi
(Photo: Suzanne Opton)
The Talking Band's mighty inventiveness is once again on display in La Mama etc's huge playing space. Like the thirty-year-old company's Star Messengers, which played in this same theater three seasons ago, Belize is based on actual historic events and characters. The play is heavily interspersed with music and it would not be too far afield to call it a chamber opera,.

The script, written and directed by Paul Zimet, centers on Edward Despard (1751-1803). The Irish born Despard showed himself to be way ahead of his time when, following his appointment (in 1786) as the first superintendent of the Bay of Honduras Settlement, he married the Afro-Carribean free woman he met and fell in love with at a "Colored Ball." John Keating and Elisa Davis, who portray Edward and Catherine, are the only cast members not playing multiple roles. Whether playing one or several characters, the entire cast is well attuned to this company's distinctive style and, while none are really singers, they do deliver Ellen Maddow's music with enthusiasm and vivacity.

I'm not being a spoiler when I tell you that this is a love story that ends unhappily since Zimet has structured it to begin and reach its climax with Edward's hanging -- an event dramatically staged from one of the above-stage balconies which are used to excellent effect. Thus, Despard's journey as a Colonel in the British Army with a promising future to incarceration in debtors' prison and eventual condemnation for treason is a flashback.

We see Despard's comrade-in-arms relationship with a young Horatio Nelson (Stephen Rattazzi), his conflict with the Nicaraguan British mahogany cutters who were bent on protecting their wealth by preventing Edward from carrying out his assignment to redistribute land to the area's mixed race poor.

Despard's saga takes him and Catherine and their young son to London. She is a vital influence for his increasing involvement in espousing freedom for all oppressed people, and though admitting that she initially didn't love him, she bravely stands by him. She enlists the now powerful Nelson to testify on Edward's behalf but she can't save him from the hangman's noose (Her efforts did cause the judge to eliminate the more horrendous drawing and quartering-- the last such sentence ever issue in England).

Nelson is just one fascinating peripheral character woven into the main story. These include William Blake (David Greenspan) and his wife (Tina Shepard), King Ferdinand (Randolph Curtis Rand) and his Queen (Shepard again), and Nelson's paramour Emma Hamilton (played by composer Maddow). To add to the production's visual excitement there are also two choruses -- the Irish peasant guerillas known as the "White Boys of Coolrain" (more roles for Greenspan and Stephen Rattazzi, plus Liz Albertson) and, to infuse the show with African rhythms there are the "Caribbean Mummies" led by Talking Band regular Will Badgett (who also serves as orator).

Belize is crafted by the same imaginative design team that lent to many terrific ideas to Star Messenger and Paul Zimet again takes full advantage of their talents. Maddow's music is not of the crowd pleasing variety, especially when heard for the first time. Its delivery by these performers can be admired more for being daring than dazzling Yet the lyrics, like the spoken text, are forceful and whether spoken or sung, the words illuminate history and the whole enterprise stretches theater's aestethic potential.

This is the third Off-Off-Broadway production I saw in as many days, all proving that interesting theatrical experiences may not be free, but often can be enjoyed for a bargain-priced $15. (The other two plays were a new version of The Three Sisters at Classic Stage and Aphrodisiac a new play from 13P, a recently formed playwrght's collective). Like most such bargains, Belize is on stage for a very limited run.

Readers from out of town, might keep a lookout for Talking Band 's planned tour of Bitterroot. This musical about Lewis and Clark and the Corps of Discovery, written by Paul Zimet with music by Peter Gordon (which premiered at La MaMa ETC) is scheduled to coincide with the 2004-2006 bicentennial of the Lewis and Clark expedition. .

Links to Talking Band Shows reviewed at CurtainUp
Star Messengers
The Parrot

Written and directed by Paul Zimet
Music by Ellen Maddow
Choreography by Stefa Zawerucha
Cast: William Badgett, Kwed Ifatola Camara, Elsa Davis, David Greenspan, John Keating, Ellen Maddow, Audrey Pernell, Randolph Curtis Rand, Steven Rattazzi, Tina Shepard, Vivian Warfield, Connie Winston.
Set Design: Nic Ularu
Costume Design: Kiki Smith
Lighting Design: Carol Mullins
Sound Design: Tim Schellenbaum
Choreography: Stefa Zawerucha
Additional music by "Blue" Gene Tyranny
Assistant Costume Designer: Jill St. Coeur Running time: 95 minutes, plus one intermission.
Talking Band at La MaMa ETC, 74A E. 4th St. ,212/475-7710
From 1/06/05 to 1/23/05; opening 1/08/05
Wed - Sun at 7:30pm; Sun at 2:30pm
Tickets: $15
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on January 8, 2005 press performance
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