Friday, March 13, 2009

As the world turns

Galileo and Pope Urban XIII get lost in the stars at the Huntington.

I knew the reviewers weren't going to be kind to Two Men of Florence, Richard Goodwin's account of the silencing of Galileo by Pope Urban XIII, but I was still surprised by how negative they were, given first-time-playwright Goodwin's political pull around here (he was speechwriter to both JFK and LBJ, and is married to PBS darling Doris Kearns Goodwin). So good for Louise Kennedy and Jenna Scherer, who both basically tell it like it (obviously) is: the play is long and predictable, and crowded with too many stock characters, and is essentially a series of speeches rather than a drama (whaddya want, he's a speechwriter). It doesn't even give us the middle-brow pay-offs it promises (Galileo's legendary encounter with the instruments of torture, and his similarly undocumented, but-too-good-to-leave-out, whisper, "and yet it moves"). Goodwin clearly had his eye on creating a handsome, commercial "thinking-man's" play in the mode of, say, A Man for All Seasons, which certainly isn't a bad goal - and the material seems amenable to his intents. And his timing is impeccable (not only are we locked in a latter-day battle between faith and science, but 2009 is the 400th anniversary of Galileo's invention of the telescope). Unfortunately Goodwin just doesn't have the chops to pull the play off.

But to be fair, there's the set to consider (above), and really, the Huntington has outdone itself this time (even besting its marvelous set for last fall's Rock'n'Roll). Indeed, the set is so wonderful you might almost decide to go to the play just to see it. Designer Francis O'Connor has embedded so much metaphor in the Huntington stage that I'm not even quite sure where to begin. But first some advice: if you do decide to see Two Men of Florence - and there are, frankly, worse ways to spend an evening - be sure to see it from the balcony (preferably the front). That's the only way to fully appreciate the gorgeous floor O'Connor has created: a gleaming globe - ironically modeled on the maps which hang in the Vatican - which sometimes spins at great speed (just like the real one). This pregnant image is then smartly shrouded in a circular veil (neatly conjuring the play's central scientific mystery), and ensconced in an enclosure of candles - which in turn flicker before a corresponding universe of stars. The candle/star opposition serves as a neat metaphor for the play's supposed opposition between faith and science - but O'Connor (with lighting designer Ben Ormerod) pushes this idea far beyond metaphor when fiber-optic stars drop directly into the action just as Galileo catches a glimpse of the moons of Jupiter through his telescope (above left). Suddenly, the actors - and we ourselves - are floating through the cosmos in a manner never quite matched by a planetarium (and certainly by no science fiction movie ever made); the sensation is exhilarating and poetic, and a stunning reminder of the palpable effects the stage can offer but television and movies cannot achieve. If there were a Nobel Prize for set design, O'Connor and Ormerod would deserve it.

But alas, yes, there's also the play. How, exactly, can the Huntington's team be so attuned to dramatic design and yet so tone-deaf to drama itself? This is the fourth new play in their season, and it's the fourth under-achiever (admittedly, Rock'n'Roll was well-disguised). It's not quite an irritating clunker like How Shakespeare Won the West, but it still only occasionally throws off sparks, and then only in its first act, and then largely due to that set and its fluid staging (by the National Theatre's Edward Hall). Goodwin does manage the neat trick of rendering Galileo's experiments theatrically effective, and his talent for aphorism has not deserted him (his description of his subject as "a philosopher with hands" perfectly sums up what made the great man great).

But the dramatic motor of this kind of vehicle is the embodiment of philosophical debate in the clash of two characters, and here Goodwin fumbles the opportunity history has given him. For Urban was a man of sophisticated intellect - who at least half-encouraged Galileo to publish the notorious defense of Copernicus that landed him in prison; and Galileo was, actually, a man of faith (at an early age he even considered joining the priesthood!). And, yes, they were even friends. But Goodwin, though he effectively conjures on stage the scientific problem of "proving" the earth moved around the sun, can't seem to limn the impact of Galileo's work on his relationship with Urban. And thus the philosophical ramifications of their debate lack force (and, actually, focus). There are isolated lines and shards of dialogue that show Goodwin is aware of his central theme, but the play's structure doesn't take him where he needs to go - to a smackdown between Urban and Galileo, and Urban's frustrated turn to the threat of torture.

Whether or not Galileo was actually shown the implements of torment, as legend would have it, isn't really dramatically material. There is written evidence that his judges considered torture one of their options, which is more than enough to justify its appearance onstage (oddly, Goodwin opens with the torment of Bruno, another heretic, but then drops the meme!). And the gap underlines a deeper flaw in Goodwin's scheme: in his effort to complicate (actually over-complicate) Urban, Goodwin goes easy on the Church itself - and the collateral damage it did itself. For ironically enough, few people have done as much to undermine "faith" as Urban did, by divorcing it from our logical observations of the world; Galileo's postulates may have contradicted the Bible (not a word of which, mind you, was written by Yahweh or Jesus); but they were completely consonant with faith in God. Indeed, as many scientists have attested, there is nothing quite so mystically moving as perceiving the mathematical principles behind the motion of the universe; this may be the closest thing we have to a proof of God's existence (note even today physicists are chasing what they call "the God particle"). After all, what Urban did was tantamount to Pope Benedict tossing Steven Hawking into a black site, wheelchair and all (and don't imagine that couldn't happen - as late as the 1990's, Benedict was voicing some very odd sentiments about Galileo!). His actions effectively undermined the Catholic Church intellectually for - well, for forever, frankly. And Goodwin somehow loses sight of that fact.

Perhaps because his vision has been blocked by the 19 scenes and 21 speaking roles he's tried to shoehorn into his play. It's nice to see a theatre attempt a new play with a giant cast and the flexible stage freedom of Shakespeare or Brecht - but Goodwin's control of this rich pageant is awkward and unsure, and many of the small roles are hackwork. The actors inhabiting them nevertheless often mine brief glints of dramatic gold - there are strong turns here from local heroes Diego Arciniegas and Jeremiah Kissel, as well as the skillful Dermot Crowley and Joel Rainwater. As Galileo, television star Jay O. Sanders demonstrates both prickly smarts and convincing theatrical chops, and always keeps the role lively and engaging, if inevitably somewhat clich├ęd. But he's hampered by the strangely blank Molly Schreiber as daughter Marie Celeste (who for some reason has left the convent where history placed her and has joined Dad in the lab), and by a surprisingly inadequate Edward Herrmann as Urban. Herrmann (above) goes up on his lines at almost every climax, and in general can't deliver more than his usual befuddled, intelligent likeability. But until he finds a darker, more dramatic path for his half of Two Men, this production will continue to run in circles.

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