The Asolo Rep’s Life of Galileo provides much food for thought.
By Kay Kipling
We don’t often see works by German playwright Bertolt Brecht on Sarasota stages (thinking back, it’s hard to recall the last time), so for theater lovers it’s quite an occasion to watch his Life of Galileo on the Asolo Rep’s mainstage—a first-time ever local production of this work about the famed Italian natural philosopher-astronomer. That the play is considered by many to be Brecht’s most autobiographical work adds to the draw.
Director Michael Donald Edwards and his design team have taken a bold approach to staging this piece, which covers decades in the career of the man who lived for science but was forced to recant his theories about the place of the earth and sun in our solar system by the Catholic Church during Inquisition days. The set is mostly bare bones, with the exception of some impressive large-scale projections by Dan Scully that capture our attention; the costumes are mostly contemporary rather than period (again with a few exceptions); and the dialogue (in a new translation by David Edgar) is filled with thought-provoking discussions about science, religion and politics, raising questions that occupy us just as much today as they did in Galileo’s time.
The play opens with Galileo (Paul Whitworth, looking like a properly rumpled scientist-intellectual) discussing his research with a young student (Owen Teague) whose mother (Carolyn Michel) also happens to be Galileo’s factotum. Galileo can hold forth brilliantly on the subjects he cares passionately about, but he has other less appealing traits. He can be a bit of a scamp, one given to creature comforts and thus not averse to trickery when his finances call for it; and he places his work above anything else in life, including the happiness of his daughter, Virginia (Hannah Rose Goalstone), who falls in love with a prosperous young Italian (Ghafir Akbar) but is destined to have her heart broken.
Paul Whitworth and Owen Teague in the Asolo Rep’s Life of Galileo.
Galileo’s scientific pursuits put him in direct conflict with the teachings of the Catholic Church, typified by a smoothly manipulative Cardinal Inquisitor (Jason Bradley) and a well-read cardinal-turned-Pope (Douglas Jones), who reluctantly agrees to turn him over to the Inquisition’s tender mercies. Galileo is no hero in this situation, but then how many of us would be?
The talk pours out of this constant thinker, and Whitworth is always entertaining as he traces the highs and lows of his journey. But don’t expect to find your heart as engaged as your mind here; other than Galileo himself, most of the characters don’t really register that strongly. They exist mostly as, well, satellites to the great scholar; even when daughter Virginia’s hope of a happy life is dramatically overturned, we quickly rush by it and on to the next scene in his story.
That may be Brecht’s own vision of a self-absorbed scientific genius (or playwright). But the production is also hurt more than helped by a couple of dance numbers (one with a hip-hop groove) that come off as jarring and add nothing to the otherwise often successful reminder of the timelessness of the issues the play centers on.
Still, as a stimulating opportunity for debate, The Life of Galileo is a bracing alternative to the lighter fare we most often see, especially at this time of year. It continues in rotating repertory through Feb. 17; call 351-8000 or visit asolo.org for tickets.