nytheatre.com review by Liz Kimberlin
January 7, 2005
Belize, a new musical theatre work performed by the venerable off-off-Broadway company The Talking Band, is an experience that blatantly defies description. Ultimately, I came away with the impression that it is an experience more to be assimilated than understood.
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, although in one memorable scene clothing is completely non-existent for two famous historical characters who inexplicably become part of what—in Belize, at least—is the action. There's as much activity going on on the sidelines (that appeared to be part of the play) as happens on the stage .
And then, of course, there's The Talking Band's signature: sound. Voices, speech, and language are percussion instruments, Irish ballads and African tribal chants are dialogue. It's almost jarring when characters intermittently deliver lines in "normal" fashion.
Floating somewhere in this sensory, multimedia smorgasbord is a plot (and true story) set in the 18th century about Edward Despard, a loyal British army colonel, who, while in Jamaica, marries an African American woman named Catherine. With her help, Despard becomes a revolutionary and champion of the "mixed race" indigents of Belize (then known as the Bay of Honduras). Rather than protect British interests as his commission demands, he is eventually hanged as a traitor in London.
Too busy trying to digest the parade of non sequitur scenes, I was probably 85% oblivious to the historical or political ramifications until some character showed up with a big hat, big speech, or big song. Mostly what I got was: boy meets girl, boy unforgivably disrupts the status quo, girl tries in vain to save boy's butt. Historic cameos abound. Lord Horatio Nelson shows up for a scene, as does poet/artist William Blake (remember "Tyger, tyger, burning bright…"?) who, with his wife, sits sedately in the nude and serves afternoon tea to Catherine.
The performers, some of them founding members of The Talking Band, are generally faultless in technique. John Keating is appropriately intense and fiery as Edward, and Eisa Davis makes a beautiful, elegant, soft-spoken Catherine. Almost too soft-spoken, however—I sometimes had to strain to hear her. No straining necessary, though, for the choruses from Irish terrorist balladeers known as the White Boys of Coolrain and satirical Mardi Gras-style pipe-and-drum band, the Black Mummers.
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.
My admiration for the show, however, is unfortunately more detached and academic than it is passionate. Very linear thinkers and those who only relate to straight plays may not want to see Belize as so much of it is aggressively and unapologetically incomprehensible. I noticed that several people didn't return after intermission, and I even found myself almost nodding off at times. That is until the marvelously raucous Black Mummers made a welcome return to the scene and jolted us awake.
I can't attribute my losing attention to the show's being boring or of inadequate quality. Quite the reverse. But I do feel that what makes Belize so admirable in terms of total commitment to its "to hell with rules and structure" form is also its biggest drawback. With narrative substance sacrificed, the show is so diffuse that—for me, at least—the effect was of a pre-waking REM-state dream: remote, nebulous, and a memory quickly lost.