Star Messengers

written and directed by Paul Zimet
composed by Ellen Maddow
sets by Nic Ularu
costumes by Kiki Smith
lights by Carol Mullins
choreography by Karine Keithley
musical director Sima Wolf
production stage manager Terry Dale
with: William Badgett*, Christine Ciccone*, Ryan Dietz*, Court Dorsey, David Greenspan*, Marcy Jellison*, Karinne Keithley, Ellen Maddow*, Randy Reyes*, and Michelle Rios*
musicians: Stephen Katz, Neal Kirkwood, Gina Leishman and Harry Mann
* appear courtesy of Actors Equity Association

NY Times Review, December 10, 2001

Performance Schedule:
November 30th - December 16th, 2001
Wednesday - Sunday 7:30pm
Sunday Matinee 2:30pm
The Annex Theatre
$20.00


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.

Paul Zimet
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.

Ellen Maddow
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.

STAR 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.


New 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 sensuous.

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 adventure either.

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.

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