Science has always been the thin-armed, thick-spectacled victim of bullies who relish nothing more than curb-stomping an idea — or even a fact — when it ruffles their comfortable assumptions.
And so it is that we have presidential candidate Rick Perry declaring the theory of evolution has some "holes" in it. But if The Life of Galileo, now playing at the Cleveland Play House, proves anything, it is that the conflict between science and assumption is a long-standing drama. This witty, elegant, and thought-provoking production is nearly flawless, and it serves as a grand curtain-raiser for the Play House's new home in the renovated Allen Theatre at Playhouse Square downtown.
Staged with exuberant imagination by director Michael Douglas Edwards, Bertolt Brecht's script is brought vibrantly to life through the clever use of multiple theatrical effects and one deeply resonant performance.
Despite the bland title, this play is no fawning biography of the iconic astronomer, mathematician, and philosopher. We encounter Galileo Galilei first as a 45-year-old man of accomplishments who is more interested in research than in tapping an income stream.
But when he does focus on making money, Mr. G. demonstrates an aptitude for craven groveling that makes the pleading contestants on Wheel of Fortune look dignified. He even renames the moons of Jupiter the "Medicean stars" to curry favor with the snotty, pre-pubescent Grand Duke Cosimo de Medici, in hopes of copping a cushy job as court mathematician.
But like the mythical Icarus, Galileo eventually flies too close to the sun by proving that the heliocentric view of astronomical movement proposed by Copernicus is correct.
It's his bad luck that the 17th-century Catholic Church has a vested interest in the concept that all planets and stars revolve around the earth, with the stars and planets attached to a crystal sphere that is fixed and immutable.
If this is starting to sound like the stuff you slept through in school, be advised that the Play House will keep you awake, alert, and fully entertained. Whether he's being a playful Mr. Wizard to his young assistant Andrea Sarti (a charming Aric Generette Floyd) or verbally fencing with disbelievers, Brecht's Galileo is amusing, insightful, and always dashing off toward the next challenge.
These characteristics are embodied sublimely in the performance of Paul Whitworth. His Galileo is amusing even when giving an example of a hypothesis: "When we see a mother holding a baby to her breast, the hypothesis is she is providing milk to the baby, not the other way around."
Whitworth's Galileo visibly writhes on the fiery pinpoint of the sun/earth controversy, busying himself with less volatile research to keep his purse filled. But he's irrevocably lashed to the truth he has discovered, which leads him before the Inquisition for his heretical discoveries and results in his eventual capitulation.
This is the stuff of great theater, and director Edwards takes all the right chances with the material. He employs animated drawings that appear on floating panels behind the actors to show Galileo's sketches. And when the moments are right, the stage erupts with activity: one time, a fanciful dance number with masks and flowing capes, and another, an ensemble rap song, "Bible Buster," accompanied by pop-locking moves and projected photos of U.S. political figures.
The strong supporting cast includes Charles Kartali, both as the frustrated Bursar who pays Galileo for a telescope he didn't invent, and also as Cardinal Barberini, the sympathetic cleric who later becomes Pope. Also, Sheldon Best is strong as the older Andrea, showing both his character's disillusionment with and affection for his boss.
Of course, we don't need politcal images to realize that the battle between reason and belief continues to this day. While we've all apparently agreed that the earth revolves around the sun, everything else seems still up for grabs.