Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Lost in the stars

Richard McElvain and Robert Najarian in The Life of Galileo.

Four hundred years ago, Galileo Galilei pointed a telescope at the heavens, and so jump-started the science of astronomy. As well as a series of discoveries which would set him on a collision course with the Catholic Church.

And to celebrate, we've been producing some really bad plays about him.

To be fair, we've also built some fabulous sets. The designer of the Huntington's recent Two Men of Florence (Francis O'Connor) actually managed to conjure both the spinning globe and a voyage through the stars. The Underground Railway Theater's new production of Brecht's The Life of Galileo can't top that, but offers up its own sense of spectacle via two stunning wall paintings designed by the talented David Fichter (the real 'street artist' who does all those vibrant Cambridge-block-party murals). These dazzlingly detailed images, which I imagine are the handiwork of many dedicated volunteers, depict chunks of Renaissance Italy - and MIT! - in orbit around Jupiter (see photo at end of post), and are almost worth the price of admission all by themselves.

But then again, it won't take you three full hours to appreciate them, which is how long it takes Brecht to work his way through his lumpy, meandering dialectic about the great "natural philosopher." And don't imagine I'm talking about a showdown between science and faith; no, Brecht's got a debate about science itself on his mind (he revised Galileo right after the explosion of the atom bomb to put a whole new perspective on everything).

Now if you think it's a dramatic mistake to foist a critique of the scientific method on the guy who fought the minions of the Church in its defense - well, you're absolutely right! The dramatic action of Galileo's life all works in one dialectical mode - the familiar fight between "faith" (but actually, religious hierarchy) and science; but Brecht simultaneously tries to lard in a second debate between science and, well, historical events that wouldn't happen for another three hundred years. And as a result, we don't find the playwright convincing for a minute, and indeed often find him slightly offensive. It's ridiculous to pretend, for instance, that Galileo was a "moral dwarf," (which is how Brecht would like to pretend he saw himself), because there's an obvious logical problem in the "hook" Brecht hangs his thesis on (Galileo's sad, but completely understandable, recantation when faced with torture - uh, this connects to J. Robert Oppenheimer in what way, exactly?). To be fair, Brecht has a character immediately console Galileo with something along the lines of, "I'm not so sure about that, big guy" (duh), but this only leaves us feeling that the playwright wants to have his dialectic and eat it, too.

Io, one of the moons observed by Galileo 400 years ago, crosses Jupiter in a recent photo from the Cassini spacecraft.

At any rate, even if The Life of Galileo offered some honest intellectual fireworks, these would hardly distract us from Brecht's customarily clumsy dramaturgy, which slows to a crawl whenever it senses a contradictory viewpoint within spitting distance. (Indeed, in retrospect, Richard Goodwin's Two Men of Florence, or at least its scenes of discovery, suddenly looks pretty good.) I've only seen this play once before, in a production almost as bad as this one, so my sympathies are with the actors at Underground Railway (and I have to say the new, somewhat-streamlined David Hare translation doesn't really do them any favors). Still, only a few of them manage to transcend the text - and a blandly bitter Richard McElvain, as the title figure, I'm afraid isn't one of them. There is stronger work on view from Lewis Wheeler, Steven Barkhimer, and particularly Vincent Earnest Siders, who bristles with malice as good old Pope Urban. But everyone is tripped up - sometimes literally - by their costumes, which generally mix Renaissance tops with modern bottoms; I suppose to underline that the conflicts in the play "still resonate today" with a very big conceptual marker. And alas, director David Wheeler likewise wields the same not-so-magic marker with a rather heavy hand in the final scenes.

The production only really comes to life in a funky papier-mâché puppet piece that seems to have wandered in from Glover, Vermont. Suddenly the performance ditches its chilly wanna-be dialectic and just wallows in Cambridge-style propaganda - which at least is warm and human and fun. And I'll take that over bad Brecht any day.

David Fichter and an assistant paint the gigantic murals for Galileo.

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