Bertolt Brecht's "Life of Galileo" is as unsurprisingly topical as it is consistently absorbing in Joe Discher's commendable staging for the Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey, now through August 21. In as much as Brecht (1898 - 1956) was not only a Communist and a rebel dramatist who decried the conventions of both mainstream and traditional classic theater, it is good to report how excellently this classics-dedicated theater is celebrating what many consider as one of Brecht's more accessible yet still uncompromisingly didactic plays. Written in 1948, "Life of Galileo" vividly demonstrates Brecht's aim to use the dramatic form to foster political debate. Credited with revolutionizing theater in the 20th century, Brecht's plays may be most notable for the way they eschew emotional propellants in favor of intellectual inquiry.
Brecht conveyed the importance of the human experience over human nature in his creation of "epic" theater, with such works as "The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny" and "Mother Courage and Her Children." "The Life of Galileo," however, represents him at the peak of sophistication, during a period when he was in exile in the United States in the 1940s, following his escape from Nazi Germany. Yet, with almost a touch of irony, he was soon to become a target for the House Committee on Un-American Activities. What a perfect environment to create a play about the provocative dialogues between Galileo Galilei, the physicist, mathematician, and astronomer, and the Catholic Church. How interesting it is to consider how Brecht was compelled by fear to recant his political views before fleeing the United States, just as Galileo had to recant his theories to avoid being burned at the stake.
Whether it is disquieting or not for some still today to accept that Galileo did indeed validate the cosmography of Copernicus regarding the earth's rotation around the sun (and not the reverse, as was the general consensus of opinion at the time), it is comforting that the title role is in the trust of Sherman Howard, who gave a particularly memorable performance a few seasons back as Pirandello's Enrico IV. The play's impact relies on Howard's ability to sustain our interest in the lengthy discourses between Galileo and those various individuals and groups who would question, support, or otherwise refute his theories and discoveries.
Howard shows the various sometimes contradictory sides of Galileo's temperament, in the face of the increased doubt and defamation. This is a Galileo whom we see at critical moments beginning in 1611 as he feels no compunction to claim the telescope as his own invention. Of course, he cleverly improves upon it. The play concludes with his death while under house arrest in 1642. The question of Galileo's heresy begins in a confrontation with three high-muck-a-mucks of the Roman Catholic Church, all of whom refuse on principle to look into his telescope when he has the temerity to suggest that man, the earth and, of course, the Pope by inference, are not in the center of the universe.
Robbie Collier Sublett is something of a revelation, as Andrea Sarti, Galileo's conscientious and supportive apprentice, who, despite the amusing distraction of his artfully disheveled hair, gives an engagingly savvy performance and generally illuminates the stage without upstaging his master.
Far less agit-prop than Brecht's earlier plays, "Life of Galileo" is closer but still noticeably removed from conventional dramatic construction. Brecht's signature style is always in evidence as in the introduction of scenes with an abbreviated musical ballad genially provided by singer Jay Leibowitz and a prologue spoken by the balladeer's wife, played wittily by Jessica Ires Morris. The spirited songs were co-composed by Leibowitz and Discher.
It is Discher to whom we can give the credit for keeping the three-hour play rotating smoothly on its axis and for assembling a superb cast of 23, with special mention to Robert Hock, in the duel roles of a university curator and a very old and very angry cardinal; Justine Williams, as Galileo's devout daughter Virginia; and Jessica Ires Morris, as the ballad singer's wife.
James Wolk's scenic design is eye-catching: a large metal sculpture suggesting a confluence of the scientific and the esthetic rests on a circular mosaic of the universe, where the scenes are played under Matthew E. Adelson's subdued lighting. If anything was going to make an inquisition a bit more fashionable it is Brian Russman's 17th century costumes.
As political theater "Life of Galileo" shows how reluctant the powers that be of an entrenched regime are to support, or give credence to any scientific or cultural breakthrough that might shake the foundations of its seemingly impregnable fortress. One doesn't need to look into a telescope to see what is happening around us in a country that has always prided itself in fostering social and religious freedom. Four hundred years after Galileo, and we're still fighting the same demons.
The Life of Galileo, through Sunday, August 21, the Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey, 36 Madison Avenue, on the campus of Drew University. $37 to $41. 973-408-5600 or visit www.ShakespeareNJ.org.