PlayMakers Repertory Company’s brilliant production of Bertolt Brecht’s play, Life of Galileo, combines the best of an engaging TED talk with innovative theatrical storytelling to create a stellar experience (pun intended). From the exacting direction of Vivienne Benesch to the visionary stage design of Jim Findlay, this rendition grounds today’s disputes over recent scientific research on everything from climate change to vaccines within 17th-century clashes on which scientific view will prevail.
The multi-level, complex set is the first indication that the postmodern world has collided with the Renaissance. Data banks with video screens dominate the back of a main area where quill pens, leather books, and an armillary sphere are visible on modern desks equipped with electric lights. Plexiglass frames the circular room on the second level that is accessible from the crosswalk and metal-framed staircase. Images and titles are projected on round screens floating over the stage and audience to replicate viewing through a telescope. Futuristic elements have flipped expectations, purposely connecting the past and present.
Ron Menzel’s Galileo strides into this arena, intense and eager to share his discoveries with everyone, including the 12-year-old Andrea, committed with full exuberance by Alex Givens. Givens’ talents further shine when he becomes the adult Andrea and confronts his mentor. Menzel conveys Galileo’s passion about things both temporal and concrete; this scientist loves the pursuit of ideas as much as he indulges earthly pleasures like eating and drinking.
This Galileo is optimistic and opportunistic, believing in the strength of factual evidence to persuade, while unafraid to claim other’s inventions for his own gain when necessary. He is a mesmerizing entertainer when he regales those around him with his discoveries, yet arrogant and even dismissive towards those who care the most about him. His ideas may change the way the world is viewed, but he is a human being with a myriad of faults. Menzel’s magnificent performance in an incredibly challenging role, requiring him to confidently deliver dense and lengthy scientific speeches, is captivating and central to the success of this show.
While Galileo is central to this piece, the rest of the large cast orbit through multiple roles smoothly; costume changes are often done on stage to emphasize the change and as a Brechtian reminder that the audience is watching a performance. The transformation of Kathryn Hunter-Williams from Cardinal to Pope was most fascinating and underlined how additional power adds even more weight to decisions that must be made. Tristan Parks moved stealthily from an observant, rhyming narrator to a riveting ballad singer, while slipping into additional roles ever so smoothly. All of the performances were exceptional, offering dramatic and passionate counterpoints to the final showdown between science and religion.
Benesh effectively steers the dramatization of the three decades of Galileo’s life that saw him both celebrated and vilified as a scientist. Findlay’s dazzling set is not to be missed, wonderfully saturated by the lighting of Kate McGee. Compliments also go to the costuming of Grier Coleman that distinguished the characters and rooted the story in contemporary times.
Nearly 400 years after Galileo’s death, his story resonates more than ever before.
Life of Galileo runs through March 17th. For more information visit: http://playmakersrep.org/.