La MaMa E.T.C. presents
The Talking Band in STAR MESSENGERS, a new music-theatre piece written by Paul
Zimet and composed by Ellen Maddow about two scientists - Galileo Galilei
and Johannes Kepler - who changed our view of the universe. While some aspects
of Galileo's life and discoveries are well-known, hardly anything is popularly
known of his scientific contemporaries. Johannes Kepler's realization that
the planets moved, not in perfect circles, but in elliptical paths was a
leap of mind as extraordinary as that made by Galileo in his proofs that
the earth moved around the sun. Kepler's discoveries were made despite poverty,
the Thirty Years War, the loss of his wife and child to an epidemic, and
the need to defend his mother in court from the charges of witchcraft. A
third prominent contemporary was Kepler's mentor, Tycho Brahe, the greatest
naked-eye observer of the heavens. Brahe was a flamboyant, worldly, nobleman
who wore a silver nose to replace his own that he lost in a duel. In STAR
MESSENGERS, these extraordinary, colorful figures are joined by three Commedia
characters - Simplicio, Sagredo and Salviati - created by Galileo himself,
in order to explain and popularize his theories. STAR MESSENGERS invites
us to join them in peering "with bright night vision
into nature's darkness."
In STAR MESSENGERS, Zimet and Maddow have created a carnival of genres - Opera,
Commedia Dell'Arte, Strindbergian Dream Play, and Contemporary Dance/Theatre
- in order to produce a theatrical language that conveys the wonder of Galileo's
and Kepler's discoveries.
Artistic director of The Talking Band, has written numerous plays and musical
theatre works including BLACK MILK QUARTET, NEW CITIES, and most recently BITTERROOT.
Paul has received a Playwright's Center National McKnight Fellowship, a Fullbright
Fellowship, playwrighting fellowships from the NEA and the New York Foundation
for the Arts, and three Obie Awards for his work with the Open Theater and the
Winter Project. He is a member of New Dramatists.
Has composed and written a number of music-theatre works including TILT, BETTY
SUFFER'S THEORY OF RELATIVITY, BETTY AND THE BLENDER, and BETTY BENDS THE BLUES.
She had composed the music for the opera BLACK MILK QUARTET, and most recently,
Risa Jaraslow and Dancer's HOME/WIRE WALKING. Ellen has received awards from
ASCAP, and Meet the Composer.
The Talking Band
was founded in 1974 by Paul Zimet, Ellen Maddow, and Tina Shepard. Since its
inception, The Talking Band has collaborated with musicians as well as designers
and poets to create works of rich and energetic language accentuated by a broad
range of musical expression and visual imagery. Because music is essential to
the company's unique way of storytelling, song, rhythms, and melodies are used
not as a form of accompaniment, but as integral narrative voice.
During the past twenty-seven
years, The Talking Band has created and presented 31 theatre productions, some
of which have been recognized by the theatrical community with BESSIE and
OBIE awards. STAR MESSENGERS is the 17th at La MaMa. For more information
on The Talking Band, log onto www.talkingband.org.
MESSENGERS was commissioned by the Kahn Liberal Arts Institute at Smith College.
This production is made possible with funds from The New York State Council
on the Arts and the National Endowment for the Arts.
Paul Zimet and Ellen Maddow received the Frederick Loewe Award in Musical Theater
for STAR MESSENGERS.
York Times Review
December 10, 2001
by D. J. R. Bruckner
The Talking Band lifts
off in "Star Messengers," which is pretty much a full-blown opera
conceived and executed on a grand scale. As might be expected of this wildly
imaginative theater company, what it attempts is preposterous: an exciting
journey into the ideas of Galileo, who pushed the Earth aside; Tycho Brahe,
whose precise astronomical observations helped establish a vital scientific
standard of evidence; and Johannes Kepler, whose laws of elliptical planetary
orbits foreshadowed Newton's theory of celestial mechanics.
The success of the
writer, Paul Zimet, one of the company's founders, in capturing the thinking
of these 17th-century scientists, is impressive. And the music of his
wife, Ellen Maddow, another founder, plays in the mind as a single composition
echoing early opera, Broadway musicals, chorales and chamber music. Everyone
involved has caught the spirit; the fluid grandeur of choreographed movement,
clear diction, rich costuming and a set full of surprises suggest that
the invention of this group may be considerable.
The project began
two years ago at Smith College when Mr. Zimet was engaged in an interdisciplinary
course in the history of science. Its great transformation in the largest
theater at La MaMa, where it runs through Sunday seems an achievement
of destiny for the Talking Band, which has experimented with music in
theater for 28 years and here has risen above itself. In theatrical terms
this is baroque theater made new; musically it is real opera.
Kepler and Galileo
wrote extensively about music. Here Galileo (Will Badgett) sings lines
from a talk he gave to intellectual fellow members of the Lynx Society
in Florence words Mr. Zimet mines from the text with obvious delight
("a fifth is like a nibble on the ear, both kiss and bite")
to a thrilling dance with harpsichord and cello. When Kepler (David
Greenspan) outlines planetary motions (with glowing planets orbiting above),
his listeners respond in a motet because, they sing, "the motions
of planets sing a motet; their music makes time measurable." Music
can also deflate importance: when Galileo talks mathematics to four tiers
of magi in cylindrical hats and flowing robes a vision of red rising
from shadow that is worthy of Titian these savants continually
interrupt him, a cappella, with cries of "Oh, really?" and "Magnifico!"
until the audience erupts in laughter.
More mischief comes
from Simplicio (Randy Reyes), Salviati (Michelle Rios) and Sagredo (Ms.
Maddow), three characters from one of Galileo's books who ask dumb questions
to elicit smart answers. It was often said that had Galileo not been such
an effective popular writer, the Inquisition might have given him a pass,
and these three (harlequins from the commedia dell'arte) let you hear
how good he was at this game. Their patter is out of Tin Pan Alley; their
rhymes can be as amusingly off the mark as some of Ira Gershwin's, and
they are delightful embodiments of people who talk science without understanding
any of it.
Nic Ularu's magical
set takes on a life of its own, galvanized by the lighting of Carol Mullins.
(After this company's "Tilt" a few years ago many people
thought she couldn't do better, but she has.) In an almost imperceptible
moment three bare architectural towers in the wings turn and merge
to become a fantastic blue palace from which Brahe, the Danish nobleman,
surveys heaven. Brahe (Court Dorsey) gives a party there that reveals
the concentration brought to this work not only by the stage and lighting
designers but also by Kiki Smith, whose Renaissance costumes are wonderfully
At a drunken banquet
given by Brahe, three servants dressing themselves in platters (as great
collars) and tablecloths (as robes) become nobles in an instant. And in
no more time than it takes to walk off stage and back on, Brahe and his
guests are transformed into a duke and his court, adorned and masked with
fruit, looking for all the world like paintings of the period in which
every human feature is formed of vegetables and flowers. They lip- sync
a maliciously vacuous recorded conversation in portentous-sounding Italian
as a confident Galileo sweeps in to sing shreds of wisdom at them.
There are many such
wonders, not the least a 12-foot pope whose wheels, hidden under a waterfall
of velvet robes, make a fine joke of the late- 20th-century coinage "popemobile."
Of course the trial of Galileo for heresy and Kepler's humiliations at
the hands of rulers and competitors are not ignored, but they are not
allowed to divert our emotions from the sheer wonder of intellectual
The attention to detail
throughout is a great compliment to the expectations and attention of
the audience. The score's vocal ingenuity alone would reward repeated
attendance. As usual, the members of the Talking Band are so drilled in
ensemble performance that one could imagine them exchanging roles without
missing a beat, although Mr. Dorsey might not be replaceable as Brahe,
with his expansive good humor and the silver nose that poets and street
wits made so famous all over northern Europe.
As for the musicians:
you may well leave still doubting that Neal Kirkwood can make a harpsichord
as singular a singer and yet as orchestral as he does. If you thought
an accordion is designed for tin ears, Gina Leishman will make you honor
its subtle power. Harry Mann's saxophone occupies a mighty pulpit of understanding,
speaking wonders. And with a bow and fingers as light as feathers Stephen
Katz makes a cello punctuate spoken lines, arias and choruses to bring
out meanings you might not have suspected were there.