Galileo: flawed genius

Galileo Galilei said simply that the Earth orbits the sun. As children of technology, it is very hard for us to comprehend where religion would fit into this discovery. In an age when important scientific discoveries are made almost daily, we are more capable of casting aside today what was truth yesterday.

“The Life of Galileo,” written by Bertolt Brecht and playing at the Studio Theatre, tackles this and many other themes surrounding the life and trial of this fascinating man.

The life of Brecht himself is somewhat similar to Galileo’s, but instead of facing the Spanish Inquisition, he was interrogated by the House on Un-American Activities Committee during the McCarthy era. Being a committed Communist, Brecht created what he called Epic Theatre. This dramatic genre was characterized by social commentary that Brecht hoped would “educate and change the world.” His method encouraged the audience members to separate themselves from their emotions when watching his plays and view them intellectually.

This is not to say, however, that Brecht idolized Galileo or used him as a model of advocacy. The writer portrays his subject as a flawed man motivated by money and easily intimidated by the powers that be. Brecht highlights incidents such as Galileo stealing the telescope from the Dutch and passing it off as his own.

“Unhappy (is) the land that needs heroes,” says Brecht, whose purpose is not to provide such exalted figures. Toward the end of the play, the forces of the Spanish Inquisition imprison Galileo for a month before he makes a statement renouncing his discoveries. His followers feel betrayed and consequently abandon the man whom they now consider a traitor.

A man named Andrea Sarti, who had studied under Galileo since childhood, feels particularly betrayed. In a key scene, Galileo reveals to Sarti that he had many motivations for his actions. A hero must simply champion the cause, but a human being has responsibilities to his family, his government and his religion, as well.

Though Brecht clearly makes a conscious effort to make the story accessible to anyone, it is necessary to point out that the play certainly has a target audience of history buffs, science enthusiasts and bitter Catholics.

Director David Salter is, for the most part, adept at capturing the attention of those who may not be in the aforementioned groups. The play opens with a shirtless Galileo washing himself in a water basin – a somewhat unexpected image of the pioneer of science. Thus, Salter begins the play by paying homage to Brecht’s anti-hero vision. But such creativity is lacking at times when the dialogue is lengthy and the action stagnant.

Helen Q. Huang’s period costuming is a valuable tool in enhancing the sometimes-heavy script. The costume of Cardinal Barberini is a scene all in itself. As Brecht’s complicated discourse spills from his lips, the cardinal is dressed, layer by layer, in silk and velvet. Galileo’s own costumes’ exquisite tailoring reflect a man whose life is consumed by precise measurement.

Simplicity is the order of the day for Huang’s set design, as well. Though the monochromatic stage is at times monotonous, the strategic placement of each set piece is quite functional and allows for a smooth flow both in and between scenes. Michelle Elwyn’s well-crafted props also aid in this endeavor.

The key element of the success of “The Life of Galileo” is Ted van Griethuysen’s skill in portraying the title role. He played the part in the show’s London 2002 run, but his interpretation is surprisingly fresh. It is no surprise that a character like Galileo would appeal to van Griethuysen, a student of Aesthetic Realism. Galileo is a demonstration of this body of thought, which believes in optimism amidst reality. Van Griethuysen masterfully weaves this realm of study into the world of the brave, na?ve and eternally hopeful scientist.

Van Griethuysen certainly carries the show, but there are a few other standout performances. Peter Vance as the young Sarti shows an impressive understanding of text that is far beyond his years. Unfortunately, his older counterpart, Rob McClure, is not quite as successful in portraying Sarti’s playful, inquisitive nature.

Conrad Feininger’s portrayal of the common lens grinder, Federzoni, is another bright spot. This character is pivotal in showing the battle between elitist academia and practical knowledge. Feininger employs his deep voices well to captivate the audience, even though he has relatively few things to say.

Bette Cassatt adequately plays the role of Galileo’s daughter, Virginia. Though she shows concern for her character’s father, the actress’ interpretation lacks depth.

In the end, the somber theme reads ironically, “reason’s victory depends purely on human beings who are willing to employ it.” But as we know now and as Brecht knew when he penned Galileo’s words, the old scientist was wrong. Truth will prevail eventually, and this play is testament to that fact.

“The Life of Galileo” is running through Dec. 7 at the Studio Theatre (1333 P St. N.W.). Call 332-3300 for ticket information.

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