Review: “The Life of Galileo” (Remy Bumppo)

Kelsey Brennan and Shawn Douglass/Photo: Johnny Knight
Kelsey Brennan and Shawn Douglass/Photo: Johnny Knight

Show: The Life of Galileo

Company: Remy Bumppo

Venue: Greenhouse Theater Center (2257 N Lincoln Ave)

Die Roll: 10

Bertolt Brecht’s “The Life of Galileo” tells the tale of one of history’s most brilliant scientific minds and how his work both threw us forward along the path to progress, but also how he suffered at the hands of those who would repress the dissemination of knowledge.  It would seem that this year would be a good time to resurrect this show, with its championing of knowledge and its applications over the evils of anti-intellectualism.  The script is rife with quotable lines which address the current political environment with regards to willful ignorance and the denial of factual evidence.  Remy Bumppo has done well to attack this show with vigor.

And yet, one must wonder why Director Nick Sandys chose to slap an extra layer of concept on the work.  One which tries to force a correlation between Galileo’s search for the truths of the universe and J.  Robert Oppenheimer’s work on the atomic bomb.  There are some similarities in that both men made massive strides toward scientific knowledge.  However, the environments within which they worked different greatly.  Galileo was fighting against a system that repressed his scientific discoveries.  Oppenheimer was working directly for the people in charge, who hoped to benefit from his discoveries.  Because of this disconnect, the concept falls flat.

Claeb Probst, Todd Michael Kiech, Stephanie Diaz, Shawn Douglass, and Stephen Spencer/Photo Johnny Knight
Caleb Probst, Todd Michael Kiech, Stephanie Diaz, Kelsey Brennan, Kevin Matthew Reyes, and Shawn Douglass/Photo: Johnny Knight

Through projections and writing on a chalkboard, we are told that the action is taking place simultaneously in Italy (Padua, Venice, and Florence, primarily) and the USA (California, Washington DC, and New Mexico, primarily).  And we are told that it is taking place both in the early 1600s and in the 1930s and 1940s.  The Joe C. Klug’s set design points our attention toward the 17th century setting, while Rachel Lambert’s costumes attempt to take us into the WWII era.  Yet, if one listens to the words of the play, the era-matching doesn’t work.  The play has more in common with the American era which followed, namely the late 40s through the mid 50s: the McCarthy Era, than the period of 1939 to 1947.  It is true that the House Un-American Activities Committee really got rolling in 1947, and that Brecht testified before it.  What is missing is how Oppenheimer’s advances coincided with that activity.  The activities of the play seem to correspond more directly with the playwright’s experience, rather than that of the scientist sited within the program.

So, from the outside eye, the concept really seems to be a justification of the use of 1940s costumes in an otherwise Renaissance setting.  Though the play can better address its own topic, and the relation to the modern world, if left alone and presented in a more straightforward manner.

Aside from the mixed-period kerfuffle/concept, this is really a quite admirable production.  The acting is stellar throughout, although one might note that Shawn Douglass’ Galileo is performed in a more realistic and gritty style than the broader and more heightened style of most of the rest of the ensemble.  That being said, he is utterly convincing within the role, and the conflict of acting styles causes him to stand out as being different from those around him in a very practical way, in addition to what the plot calls for.

Galileo_4_webKelsey Brennan portrayal of Galileo’s pupil Andrea Sarti is dynamic.  Brennan takes the character through many stages of development: from a young boy of 11 to a confident young man who represents the hope for the future of all mankind’s knowledge.  The majority of the cast plays a variety of characters, both credited and otherwise.  Todd Michael Kiech, who I last reviewed in a production by lower case theatre, does a stellar job for Remy Bumppo.  Kiech creates characters that are distinct and evocative. It is good to seem him in action on good material. Blake Montgomery also does an admirable turn in his multiple characters, who are often in direct conflict with Galileo’s truths.  He fits the villain role well, but also brings interesting complexity to the character Barberini, a science-embracing priest who eventually raises to the level of Pope.  The entire cast is of high quality.  Not one missed a beat in creating a vivid dramatic experience, even when moving scenery the world of the play was conveyed clearly through their full commitment to their actions.

Translator David Hare’s work with Brecht’s words is lovely, and I would take a moment to listen closely to what is said within this script.  True, this is one piece that many theatre professionals had to study in college, and so it may seem a bit of a museum piece, but these words resonate so fully today in our current political environment that it is easy to see the play’s universality.

I would encourage you to take in this show.  I would also encourage you to ignore the costuming choices and forced conceptual construct applied to the piece.  Let the piece itself speak to you, and enjoy a well-acted evening of theatre.  A brief word of forewarning, so you know what you’re getting into, though.  This is a long play.  Intermission occurs just about the point at which many newer works would be wrapping up.  So, be prepared for bit of sitting time and perhaps a limb falling asleep.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: An ignorant populace helps the powerful maintain control throughout history.

RATING: d10 – “Worth Going To”