Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956) wrote two versions of his play “Galileo” (also known as “The Life of Galileo”) — one written between 1937 and 1939 and the other between 1945 and 1947 in collaboration with the great American actor Charles Laughton who also appeared in the title role in the play’s American premiere in 1947 (lasting only six performances on Broadway.) A previous translation by John Willett, published in 1940, was used in an impressive, indeed, stimulating production presented by the Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey in 2005. I mention this because it is the only version of the play I’ve seen until the current one at the Classic Stage Company, which is using the Laughton translation.
I’ve used the word “stimulating” above to point out what I think is primarily wrong with the production at the CSC under the direction of Brian Kulick and starring F. Murray Abraham as Galileo Galilei, the physicist, mathematician, and astronomer whose findings confounded and stymied the Catholic Church in the 17th century. It isn’t stimulating. What is especially puzzling to me is how comparatively dreary and pedantic the Laughton version seems to be in comparison to the Willett version despite it being almost one hour shorter. However, I am willing to concede that it may not be the translation as much at fault as it is Kulick’s direction and staging.
In as much as Brecht was not only a Communist and a rebel dramatist who decried the conventions of both mainstream and traditional classic theater, it would have been nice to report that the experience of seeing/hearing the Laughton version increased my interest in a play that many consider to be one of Brecht’s more accessible yet still uncompromisingly didactic plays. Certainly Galileo vividly demonstrates Brecht’s aim to use the dramatic form to foster political debate, but certainly he did not mean to induce drowsiness.
Far less agit-prop than his earlier plays, “Galileo” is closer to, but still noticeably removed from, conventional dramatic construction. If, for obvious reasons, political theater is once again flexing its muscles, we can also look back to a play such as this to see how reluctant a religious organization with its entrenched dogmas was to give credence to any scientific or cultural breakthrough that might shake the foundations of its seemingly impregnable fortress. One doesn’t need to look into a telescope to see what is happening around us in a country that has previously prided itself in fostering social and religious freedom.
Credited with revolutionizing theater in the 20th century, Brecht’s plays are notable for the way they eschew emotional propellants in favor of intellectual inquiry. But even giving due value to that consideration, the CSC has unfortunately come up with, dare I say it, a somewhat boring production. Even if Kulick can be blamed for the play’s leaden pace, what is there to justify the lackluster acting by the supporting cast, many of whom are consigned to multiple role-playing? They do, however, dutifully accommodate the as yet unexciting performance of Abraham, whose career otherwise significantly comprises towering portrayals from Shylock on the stage to Amadeus on the screen. One might be expected to accept Brecht’s endless pontificating if Abraham had mustered up a little more zip and zeal.
That said, there are glimmerings in Abraham’s performance that hint that he is striving to find a character who will eventually show the various, sometimes contradictory, sides of Galileo’s temperament — including his need to be effectively and alternately conciliatory, condescending, humble, humorous, and defensive. I expect that future audiences will be treated to a more complexly realized Galileo, if only for the sake of being interesting.
Whether it is disquieting or not for some to even today accept that Galileo did indeed validate the cosmography of Copernicus regarding the earth’s rotation around the sun (and not the reverse, as was the general consensus of opinion at the time), it is reasonable to assume that Abraham (by the time the play opens officially) will have no problem sustaining an audience’s interest in the lengthy discourses between Galileo and those various individuals and groups who would question, support, or otherwise refute his theories and discoveries.
Among the supporting cast, Andy Phelan is a tad wimpy as Andrea, Galileo’s conscientious and supportive apprentice and more so as the Prince. Amanda Quaid drifts through the discourse as Virginia, Galileo’s devout but unsupportive daughter, whose future depends upon an unlikely marital alliance with her suitor, the wealthy and imminently unlikable Ludovico (Nick Westrate). Among the other multiple role players who posture, pose, and pontificate under the nine large silver orbs above their heads (an impressionistic consideration of the known universe by set designer Adrianne Lobel) are Steven Rattazzi as Priuli, a university curator, the Ballad Singer and a boy; and Steven Skybell as Galileo’s friend, Sagredo, and Cardinal Bellarmin. They parade about in the upholstery fabric costumes designed by Oana Botez-Ban that would in themselves warrant an inquisition.
If reviving “Galileo” has its rewards, regardless of the translation, it is to remind us to be on our guard today and take a stand against those who encourage the fanaticism of right wing extremists and religious fundamentalists, who openly refute Darwinian evolution as science, condemn same-sex unions, and unconscionably resist aggressive stem cell research, perhaps the most important breakthrough of our age. Four hundred years after Galileo, and we’re still fighting the same demons. **
“Galileo,” through Sunday, March 11, Classic Stage Company, 136 East 13th Street. $60 to $65. 212-352-3101.