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A CurtainUp Review
Star Messengers

by Les Gutman

Editor's Note: As a rule we don't review shows running less than three weeks, nor do we post reviews nearer to the closing than the opening date. But then, what are rules for if not to be broken —especially when it comes to the great variety of often too-intriguing-to-miss short runs at the venerable La MaMa E.T.C.

I was drawn to Star Messengers because I'd never seen any of the Talking Band's work but have long admired David Greenspan who is one of this production's leading players. Star Messengers also reminded me of Catherine Shaw's The Lone Runner: The Mythical Journey of Nicholas Tesler (my review) which played at La MaMa three years ago, has lingered in my mind longer than many another performance play seen before or since. Unlike that production, Star Messengers is not a puppet play but it does feature some stunning masked figures and lives up to its promise as yet another innovative approach to bringing science to the stage.

My worthy colleague, Les Gutman, has taken his usually insightful measure of what might be tagged a a science opera. While I concur with his overall appraisal, I was less bothered by what he perceived to be the play's shortcomings. Since the best music belongs to the ensemble, I also wouldn't quibble with David Greenspan 's singing, especially given his astounding rendering of Johannes Kepler. And though I liked the revival of Othello that recently opened at the Public Theater, watching Greenspan and Will Badgett I couldn't keep seeing this pair doing the Moor and his devious ensign. At any rate, you have only this weekend left to see whether you agree with the short-of -100% Gutman evaluation or my own quibble-free take. In either case, it's obvious that you're in for a rare visual treat and an experience that stands apart from your typical theatrical genre. — Elyse Sommer

God waited 6000 years for a witness.
---Johannes Kepler

The end of the 16th and the beginning of the 17th Century are to astronomy what the middle of the 20th Century is to musical theater. It's not that advances were not made before or after that time, but the period harbored the field's most potent momentum. It was in this period that Galileo invented to powerful telescope, leading to the proof of the Copernican theories on the relationship of the sun to the earth, and Kepler, using the data of Brahe, developed the theories of celestial mechanics which remain intact today.

These were men for whom science was sufficiently expansive that it encompassed religion and art. Galileo, a Catholic, spent much of his life at odds with his church. (The picture above shows him in one such confrontation, with an outsized Pope Urban VII.) Kepler, a Lutheran, devoted much thought to reconciling his faith and his scientific discoveries. The importance of periodicity and harmony in the work of both Galileo (a musician's son) and Kepler made music elemental to their inquiries.

It is thus only superficially surprising that this subject matter makes fine fodder for a work of music-theater. Indeed, composer Ellen Meadow has focused quite precisely on the musical interpretation of Galileo (represented by Gina Leishman's accordion) and Kepler (by Stephen Katz's cello). Similarly, Karinne Keithley's choreography relies heavily on notions of geometry.

Visually, Star Messengers is as stunning as it is inventive. Paul Zimet has made wonderful use of Nic Ulara's imaginative set designs, beautifully and craftfully lit by Carol Mullins. Kiki Smith's costumes are not only appropriate, they are handsome and fun. Over and over again the production surprises us with terrific ideas and vivid images.

It is disappointing, then, that the play itself is not able to sustain itself as much more than a documentary. Zimet's libretto (this work is almost entirely sung) relies heavily on original texts and, though he does succeed teaching us the essentials of each character's theories, he fails to bring to it the sort of excitement that attends the imagery. Simply stated, it's flat, never delivering the enthusiasm for discovery that must be at its core. Maddow's score, not without moments, especially in pastiche, is in the end most memorable for its endless use of recitative-like droning.

Will Badgett's Galileo is able to overcome the monotony with the help of a couple of pretty good songs, but he never really conveys much of any depth about one of the great scientists of all time. Greenspan doesn't fare as well in the song department, but at least lets us get to know Kepler fairly well. Both have been used to far greater advantage elsewhere. The remainder of the cast does some impressive work, albeit briefly (most are cast in multiple roles, in only some of which they are readily identifiable), with the three commedia characters, Sagredo (Ms. Maddow), Simplicio (Randy Reyes) and Salviati (Michelle Rios), delivering a respectable jolt of humor.

Star Messengers
Written and directed by Paul Zimet
Music by Ellen Maddow
with Will Badgett, Christine Ciccone, Ryan Dietz, Court Dorsey, David Greenspan, Marcy Jellison, Karinne Keithley, Ellen Maddow, Randy Reyes and Michelle Rios
Set Design: Nic Ulara
Costume Design: Kiki Smith
Lighting Design: Carol Mullins
Choreography: Karinne Keithley
Music Director: Sima Wolf
Musicians: Stephen Katz, Neal Kirkwood, Gina Leishman and Harry Mann
Running Time: 1 hour, 45 minutes, without intermission
La MaMa E.T.C. (Annex), 74A East 4th Street (2 Av/Bowery)
Telephone (212) 475 - 7710
Talking Band website: Opening December 2, 2001, closing December 16, 2001
WED - SUN @7:30, SUN @2:30; $20 (students $15)
Reviewed by Les Gutman based on 12/12/01 performance

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