As a man whose works were heavily informed by politics, Bertolt Brecht understood about drama what Galileo knew to be true about astronomy: What you see strongly depends on where you’re standing. Brecht’s Galileo, a biographical account of the stargazing scientist’s clash with the Vatican, celebrates the solidity of proven truths, while also demonstrating the slipperiness of allegories. The first draft was written in the time of Hitler’s rise and Stalin’s show trials, and the story of one man’s failed effort to raise the torch against dogmatic obscurantism could easily have referred to either. In 1945, a revised version scaled back the fervent support of scientific inquiry in the light of the lessons learned from the Manhattan Project, and a few years later, the political context shifted once more when Brecht faced America’s own version of fascistic interrogation, the HUAC board.
This is all to say that Galileo is a play whose significance, like the celestial objects its hero observes, is constantly on the move. So what does it mean now? That’s the question that dogs the Classic Stage Company’s new Off Broadway production, which begins with a rhyming prologue that’s been updated to implicate antiscientific ear-plugging of climate-change deniers. But it’s only an offhanded suggestion.
Greying eminence of stage and screen F. Murray Abraham plays the famed Italian thinker as a man brushed by arrogance, whose natural pragmatism is both his strength and his undoing. Importantly, he also imbues Galileo with a refreshing streak of bonhomie, and in scenes with his devoted daughter (Amanda Quaid) and idolizing acolyte (Andy Phelan) he exhibits an exuberance and genuine love for science. This is key because without Abraham’s conviviality, the play can be so dry it threatens to catch fire.
It’s not that the subject matter isn’t interesting, but many of the show’s Brechtian conceits (musical interludes, hieratic staging, and general fourth-wall demolition work) that were once audacious for a period drama have since become trademarks by the not-so-avant garde folks at Colonial Williamsburg. Scenes totter towards fusty ”History Comes Alive!” reenactment territory, not helped by the show?s occasional planetarium-style projection, but Abraham’s performance always manages to keep things from feeling too zombified. The subtle, ironic humor that breezes through Brecht’s dialogue also helps to blow off some of the dust.
Scenic designer Adrianne Lobel has adorned the stage with rings and a handful of planets that hang from the ceiling and look a bit like giant balls of crinkled aluminum foil. A large aperture opens to reveal a screen that displays a variety of maps, charts, and backdrops. Brecht was never one for a self-contained theater experience, and the design serves as a constant reminder that there are larger issues at play here than Galileo’s struggle. And yet director Brian Kulick’s production still feels more cut-off than it should. Without a clear context, and even with an impressive performance from Abraham, it all comes across as a little too isolated and airless, as if you’re watching everything through the wrong end of a telescope. B
(Tickets: classicstage.org or 866-811-4111)