nytheatre.com review by J. Scott Reynolds
February 17, 2012
In the Galileo playing at Classic Stage Company, the hallmarks its patrons have come to expect under artistic director Brian Kulick (who also directs) are all on handsome display: The five-masted stage presence of a theater royal (F. Murray Abraham), the minimalistic set with opulent touches, the leather knee boots, the moments of choreography seamlessly woven into dialogue; there is little to disappoint in the production’s breadth of talent and crisp aesthetics.
That the play was penned by Bertolt Brecht does not in and of itself make this achievement a qualified one. It does suggest demands on its interpreters that a beautifully designed production with heavyweight acting chops might not be enough to satisfy. A committed (if jaded) Marxist, Brecht sought a theater that could be harnessed to revolutionary currents. His mission was to deny audiences the consolation of catharsis, which he believed left them unchanged. His plays labor to depict human woe not as tragedy, but as a product of cowardice, ignorance and greed, and to leave audiences with an outrage that might lead to collective action. Whatever the political efficacy of his theories, Brecht the playwright is often as severe toward his protagonists as to the forces of reaction that defeat them, and this uncompromising approach has produced characters with fascinating contradictions.
Brecht’s Galileo Galilei (very loosely based on the historical one) is such a character. A man of science who is as fond of fine wines and dining as he is passionate in his search for new knowledge, his experiments vie for time spent on more remunerative engineering projects. “I have no patience,” he tells a friend, “with a man that doesn’t use his brains to fill his belly.” Indeed, the two motives work in tandem for much of the play. On hearing a description of the still-unknown telescope from a pupil who saw one in Amsterdam, Galileo quickly devises his own versions. He sells one to the Venetian government (while claiming its invention), and uses another to confirm his theory that the Earth is not the stationary center of the universe, but in rotation around the sun. Capitalizing on the acclaim of his supposed invention, Galileo secures a position with the Medici court in Florence, but refrains from publishing his findings when a theologically conservative Vatican warns against it. With the consolation of his newfound fame and comforts, he turns to other areas of experimentation, until one day learning that another scientist is on the brink of releasing identical conclusions about the earth and sun. Not wishing to be outdone, and believing a mathematician’s succession to the papacy has brought him the ultimate cover, Galileo hurriedly circulates his own discoveries. History is the spoiler for what follows: Contrary to expectations, the new pope allows subordinates to threaten torture (“At the very most, he may be shown the instruments.”), and Galileo recants. The belly wins over the brain. And what feels like a very human if less than heroic response is subjected by Brecht to a scathing indictment through Galileo himself in the play’s penultimate scene.
The critic Eric Bentley has argued that Brecht’s castigatory ending is hardly commensurate with the protagonist’s failings (an earlier version is more nuanced in its appraisal of Galileo). This seems reasonable, and if F. Murray Abraham as the lead couldn’t help but soften it a bit (as Charles Laughton is said to have done in the role over 60 years ago), his doing so doesn’t, at least, feel as jarring as a more faithful reading might. But the moment is, at a minimum, a harsh self-reckoning of a man who has long believed his personal ambitions and appetites were one with his quest for knowledge, and who now sees that the very egotism that motivated him has compromised that quest; and that, possessed as he is of an outsized talent and place on history’s stage, that compromise is not wholly personal. Moments of powerful self-awareness are precious in the theater, and Abraham and director Kulick don’t seem very interested in seizing it. Rather than delve inward when that monologue arrives, Abraham delivers it first with sighing resignation, then as a lecture directed to the audience in a leisurely and self-consciously “Brechtian” stroll through the footlights. To be fair, the character he has presented up to that point does not seem very weighed down with personal baggage. Galileo’s unctuous appeal for a place in the court, preoccupation with material well-being, and shape-shifting business practices are approached by Abraham, as often as not, with avuncular bemusement; as one who is assured of himself and his place in history, who sees compromises made along the way as mere distractions. This may, for all I know, be a closer approximation of the historical Galileo. But the Galileo of Brecht’s play is more complicated, and presents richer possibilities.
Kulick elsewhere shows an imaginative grasp of the play. Aided by scenic designer Adrianne Lobel and projections designer Jan Hartley, revolution in the fullest sense looms over the play, first with the dimly golden, beautifully textured orbs suspended around a larger, central globe in CSC’s intimate theater space; then as mimicked by a gliding court dance wherein the Inquisitor (played with sonorous charm by Steven Skybell) needles information from Galileo’s daughter. As lights fade on the spinning courtiers, a glowing Jupiter surrounded by three moons is upheld, then dropped to the floor as the scene shifts to that of the brown-habited Little Monk, who brings the play back to earth by speaking of his indigent parents who toil in the olive groves, and the threat a Copernican universe poses to their sense of purpose. Had Galileo’s characters been given the same layered treatment as its scenography, this might have been a deeply insightful production. In its current form, it is a diverting history play about a moment that has long acquired consensus.