Actor Ted van Griethuysen is surrounded by parabolas, pulleys, and pendulums in the astronomer’s lair the Studio Theatre has provided for Brecht’s The Life of Galileo, and in the play’s early stretches, he appears to be having great fun running circles around the clerics who mean to circumscribe his studies. But it’s a more intimate geometry that makes his Galileo Galilei intriguing.
Van Griethuysen plays the 17th-century scientist as a myopic visionary who can trace great arcs in the sky yet somehow fail to see the downward curve of his daughter’s frown. In that simple disconnect lies the key to his many troubles with societyand, especially, with the church. The man watches moons circling Jupiter through his telescope and recognizes that their discovery demolishes long-cherished notions of man’s place at the center of the universe. But show him a furious cardinal determined to preserve man’s centrality and he’s suddenly blind to consequence. Science is pure and clear for him; people are muddy and distracting.
This is, more or less, the Brechtian view. The Life of Galileo, like most works crafted by the German playwright and his many collaborators, is a sociopolitical tract designed to link people and ideas in a historically illuminating way. It traffics in pivotal moments and big issues, with characters who can easily appear to be little more than walking position papers. Apart from van Griethuysen’s garrulous, smugly self-sabotaging Galileo, that’s not untrue at Studio, though David Hare’s translation (also used last year at London’s Battersea Arts Centre when the D.C. actor and British director David Salter first tackled the script) works overtime to create substantial subsidiary characters and to make what amounts to a stage epic feel intimate.
This turns out to be not an altogether good idea. Fleshing out the characters and making them part of a recognizably real world pretty much precludes the edgy stylization for which Brechtian theater is usually celebrated. Larger-than-life caricatures are free to pontificate and proselytize, whereas flesh-and-blood characters must at least appear to conversewhich isn’t easy when a play’s dialogue is studded with epigrams (“What is freedom without free time?”) and pronouncements (“He who does not know the truth is an idiot; he who knows the truth and denies it is criminal”).
Salter’s staging opts not for broad strokes, but for naturalism supplemented by bursts of lush, quasi-cinematic scoring during scene changes. The science-vs.-faith arguments are clear and strongly voiced. The setting is subduedcopper highlights gracing blond wood panelingand blends well with the decor of the theater itself. Equations and schematic drawings cover the walls (much as prime numbers do in Arena Stage’s math-besotted production design for Proof). Helen Q. Huang’s costumes are understated. Michael Giannitti’s lighting radiates warmth. The result? That rarest of theatrical beasts: a Brechtian evening that’s polite, restrained, and very nearly edge-free. At times, it seems as much diorama as drama, with the author’s pointed parallels between 17th and 21st centuries (“Do not despise the free market; the market is what brings you your freedom”) registering more as smartass quips than as social critique.
That’s not to say that the director hasn’t had some nice ideas, but they’re not always executed well enough to have the intended effect. There is, for instance, the germ of a deft stroke in having Galileo blinded by sunspots before his aggrieved daughter (Bette Cassatt) shrieks at him for alienating her fiancé. He doesn’t even notice when she collapses at his feet, so it’s left to two less science-besotted aides to assist her. Unfortunately, the moment ends the scene, and the director is in such a rush to get the scene change over with as Cassatt collapses that the music is already blaring, the lights are dimming, and everyone on stage, including Galileo, is moving to his or her next positionundercutting the moment’s pathos to the point that it barely registers.
All that rushing also compromises the effectiveness of some of the area’s more gifted performers, who are not well-served by the production’s distracting double- and triple-casting. Swirling around van Griethuysen’s resolutely impassioned, deeply flawed Galileo is a swarm of antagonists and acolytes who come and go so quickly they barely have time to make an impression before they’re off for a costume change. An academic returns as a cardinal, a lens-grinder as an astronomer, and because months often pass between scenes, some of the character transitions seem plausible enough to create confusion about the plot. At one point, you’d swear Galileo’s daughter’s fiancé has become a monk, at another that the astronomer’s closest colleague is spying on him for the Inquisition.
All of which undermines the effectiveness of the social broadsides Brecht means to deliver about the abuse of authority, the decline of truth in public discourse, and the dangers of commercial and religious interference with scientific inquiry. If ever a moment were well-suited to the airing of such concerns, this would seem to be it. If only they were being aired more persuasively. CP