Written by Paul Zimet
Composed by Ellen Maddow
Direction: Paul Zimet
Sets: Nic Ularu
Lights: Carol Mullins
Costumes: Kiki Smith
Choreography: Stefa Zawerucha
Sound Design: Tim Schellenbaum
Additional Music: “Blue” Gene Tyranny
Assistant Costume Design: Jill St. Coeur
With: William Badgett, Kwed Ifatola Camara, Eisa Davis, David Greenspan, John Keating, Ellen Maddow, Audrey Pernall, Randolph Curtis Rand, Steven Rattazzi, Tina Shepard, Vivian Warfield, and Connie Winston
2005: January 6–23, La MaMa ETC, NYC
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.
From a production quality standpoint, there is much to admire about the show. The multi-tiered set is efficiently stark and minimalist. Beautiful and surreal backdrops merge collage-like in and out of focus, while hovering sinister and ever-present from the stage right uppermost tier is a gallows. The costumes are colorful and ingenious.
The performers, some of them founding members of The Talking Band, are generally faultless in technique … Standout performances are given by Steven Ratazzi (Lord Nelson) and David Greenspan (Blake), both of whom double as White Boys and sing beautifully; as well as the very charismatic Will Badgett, who also plays a number of roles (Olaudah Equiano, Black King) and is one of the energetic Mummers. Special kudos to Tina Shepard who has the guts to play Mrs. Blake wearing nothing but a cap and an air of grace.
– Liz Kimberlin, NYTheatre.com
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.
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.
– Elisa Sommer, CurtainUp
And what exactly does Talking Band do with this classic yarn of imperialistic injustice? Quite a good deal. The Annex at La MaMa is one of downtown theater�s most beautiful spaces, and Talking Band takes advantage of it. Scenes are pitched on warm, wooden balconies and stairwells. Set designer Nic Ularu constructed a platform stage near the audience that allows for intimate, court-style performances. That intimacy is juxtaposed with a distant upstage ledge upon which the actors appear as eerie marionettes and seem to be suspended like hanged corpses in low light.
Kiki Smith�s costumes are detailed and gorgeous, and when combined with richly colored projections and Carol Mullins�s lights, Belize‘s design successfully evokes the contrast between the ragtag, kaleidoscope-colored aesthetic of Central American colonies and the weighted luxury of the mother country, England.
Under Paul Zimet’s direction, Talking Band’s storytelling techniques are as complex as its design. Greek chorus-like accounts by the Black Mummers, a Caribbean group of street performers, and the White Boys of Coolrain, their decidedly more somber Irish-revolutionary counterparts, guide the audience through Despard�s tragic tale. Edward and Catherine�s meetings with William Blake and his wife present an enriching view of 18th-century English life. (The Blakes are wryly played by David Greenspan and Tina Shepard, two downtown-theater gems who offer the consistently best performances in a variety of roles.) And a subplot involving Horatio Nelson sheds light upon England�s imperialistic tyranny.
The play is replete with pretty songs (composed by Ellen Maddow) that are very simply set to instrumental accompaniment. They are sung for the words rather than the tone and are often amusingly introduced by the preface, �And now XXX will sing the song of XXX.�
Watching Belize is very much like indulging in a multi-course meal at a reputable establishment. It is beautiful and multifaceted, with a variety of offerings to round out the experience and an ambience that makes you feel, well, taken care of.
– Julia Jonas, OffOffOnline
An avant garde institution for 30 years, the Talking Band returns to La MaMA with an ensemble piece that aptly illustrates the company’s signature storytelling style. Applying musical narrative and ritualized movement to a simple but literate text, artistic director (and house scribe) Paul Zimet turns the life story of revolutionary hero Edward Despard into a colorful folk tale with a strong political message. The exotic performance style suits the fabled 18th-century hero, an Irish-born officer in the British Army who went native while serving as governor of British Honduras — although the role cries out for a more expressive actor to do justice to this heroic iconoclast.
Happily, founding members Maddow and Tina Shepard are on hand to lend that touch of the bizarre that defines Talking Band’s peculiar brand of subversive humor. Maddow’s contribution is a blowsy Lady Hamilton who catches Lord Nelson’s roving eye with hilariously inept tableaux vivants. Shepard, as Blake’s decorous wife, presides over a nude tea party with delicious wit.
Kiki Smith’s colorful costumes — eye-catching confections in sculptural forms — are shown to their best advantage by the two choral groups that wind their way through the action playing percussive instruments and singing in a variety of accented tongues.
– Marilyn Stasio, Variety