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.
The story is told in such broad strokes that close attention needs to be paid to Ellen Maddow’s info-packed lyrics to understand the colonial-era politics during the three decades that Despard served in Jamaica; Nicaragua; and the Bay of Honduras, then known as Belize.
Although Despard’s duties were to protect British interests in the sugar, timber and slave trades, he married a mixed-race woman named Catherine, initiated a land redistribution policy and became the champion of the poor and oppressed. Once back in England, he was imprisoned for debt and political conspiracy, and despite his friendships with Lord Horatio Nelson and poet William Blake, he was eventually hanged.
Despard delivers a nifty gallows farewell and has himself a bang-up execution, although he doesn’t undergo much of a char-acter transformation in John Keating’s monotonously stalwart perf. Neither does Catherine, but Eisa Davis plays her with a sweetness and fortitude that wear well.
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.
The White Boys of Coolrain, who look positively fearsome with their blackened faces and white women’s dresses, were Irish peasant farmers who torched their landlords’ property in nighttime guerilla raids. The Caribbean Mummies, whose military fife-and-drum music has a strong African inflection, were direct descendants of the Mummers, who performed in the streets of medieval England. Besides adding period flavor to the New World that captured Despard’s heart, they display the old-world traditions from which Talking Band has fashioned its craft.