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THEATER REVIEW The Life of Galileo
by Jonathan Abarbanel, Windy City Times
2016-04-06

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Playwright: Bertolt Brecht ( David Hare, translator ). At: Remy Bumppo Theatre Company at The Greenhouse, 2257 N. Lincoln Ave. Tickets: 773-404-7336; www.RemyBumppo.org; $42.50-$52.50. Runs through: May 1

Popular Wisdom says Galileo Galilei ( 1564-1642 ) invented the telescope and discovered our heliocentric solar system with Earth moving around the sun, not vice versa. Not quite.

Someone else invented the 'scope, but Galileo advanced it from toy-ish terrestrial spy glass to celestial instrument, thereby allowing him to gather visible and mathematical evidence of heliocentrism, a theory that had circulated for 50 years. The Catholic Church—adamantly supporting an earth-centered universe—tolerated the theory ... so long as there was no proof!

The Life of Galileo doesn't really cover his life, as he's already 46 when it starts. It then bounces through 30 years of his conflict with the Church in a brilliant drama of ideas but not a very good play, partly because the prodigiously prolific Bertolt Brecht ( 1898-1956 ) died unexpectedly, leaving behind multiple versions of Galileo.

Also, Brecht didn't give his title character any ongoing deep personal relationships with other characters, among them his daughter, whose marriage prospects he casually destroys. The drama's conflict is between man and institution—Galileo and the Church—rather than between flesh-and-blood characters. George Bernard Shaw, no less intellectual a playwright than Brecht, made Joan of Arc ( in St. Joan ) far more three-dimensional in opposition to the Church than Brecht's Galileo. The Church knew Galileo was correct but nonetheless persecuted him and suppressed his work ( a ban not completely lifted until 1835 ), and that's the crux of Brecht's play: not people as people, but the spirit of inquiry and how power deals with knowledge.

Remy Bumppo gives this problematic, rarely produced play a lively staging under company artistic director Nick Sandys. Translator David Hare, the contemporary British playwright well-known for his leftist views, is a good fit with the Marxist Brecht. Hare, Sandys or both make very naturalistic work out of Galileo so it will seem more human and less tract-like, but it doesn't work well because so many characters are two-dimensional and appear in only one or two scenes. ( Most actors play several parts. ) It's never a dull show as Medicis and Popes troupe by, and Shawn Douglas as Galileo is as charming and personable as possible for a man obsessed. Still, The Life of Galileo is more history pageant than emotionally engaging drama.

Brecht dates each scene, to which Sandys adds modern dates ( "Florence 1633/New York 1947" ) and modern dress ( Rachel Lambert, costumes ) to link Galileo's persecution with Brecht's persecutions in Nazi Germany and America ( the House Un-American Activities Committee subpoenaed Brecht in 1947 ), but the parallel dates without explanation are puzzling. Joe Klug's plain-looking thrust stage scenery disguises tricks, among them projections ( John Boesche, Yeaji Kim ) of sketches of the cosmos and mathematics, presumably Galileo's. Christopher Neville's scientific props are nifty.


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