Bertolt Brecht, the politically minded playwright, was not only trying to exalt his protagonist with Galileo, but also to show the astronomer as a selfish human being. Brecht typically wanted his audience to experience no emotional response to his plays; rather, he wanted them to think and respond intellectually or socially. As one of the dramaturgs for Black Hawk College's recent production of Galileo warns, "You may be repulsed, even alienated at times by the idea that a famous man can fight for so much truth, stand up against a community who would not always listen to him, and then deny the very truth he was trying to prove."
The play questions faith and conformity and challenges many of Galileo's choices, which influenced the future of astronomy. The one-weekend run of Galileo at Black Hawk College was an ambitious choice, considering the political nature of the show, the 25-person ensemble, and the style required.
Despite all attempts to make the slow-moving show work on a stamp-sized stage, well, let's just say it didn't work. At all. But at least the story was fairly interesting.
Moving chronologically through different settings during Galileo's adult life, the play highlights moments that make the astronomer appear unsavory. When he makes his first appearance on the stage, Galileo, played by Jeremy Mahr, wears only pants and lets his full belly hang over his waistline. His graying hair and beard are wild, and his manner is harsh, almost brutish.
Like Brecht, Galileo was a nonconformist and disagreed with church doctrines, though he could supposedly quote most passages from the Bible. After proving the sun (and not the Earth) was the center of the solar system, the astronomer created havoc in Rome by publishing a book, Dialogo, that explained his new theories to the general public. Once the Catholic church found out about Galileo's discoveries, it demanded he recant so he wouldn't be up against the Spanish Inquisition. Instead of standing by his discoveries, Galileo did recant, but his ideas remained.
The astronomer was also not the inventor of the telescope. Rather, he heard about the Dutch idea, constructed a model, and sold it to city officials to make money for his favorite thing: food. In one of my favorite moments in this play, the protagonist proclaimed, "I never eat my cheese absent-mindedly!"
One of interesting elements of Galileo, and most Brechtian theatre for that matter, is the Epic Theatre style. Brecht describes the presentational acting technique as "when the actor distances himself from the role he plays and shows dramatic situation at such an angle of vision that they were bound to become the object of the spectators' criticism." In other words, the actor doesn't embody a character but tries to comment upon the situation he or she is portraying. It's like a spectator relaying the details of a traffic accident without having been directly involved in it.
I'm not sure whether the Black Hawk actors were attempting a presentational style, but I did get a clear sense that most of them weren't quite confident being on stage. Mahr as Galileo and Tristan Tapscott as Ludovico stood out with strong stage presences, but they still couldn't pull together the slow-moving dialogue and faltering annunciation of the other actors, which bogged the production down.
Costumes and props also required lots of imagination from the audience, considering some actors were wearing jeans, Doc Marten boots, and stocking hats with Frisbees in them (to resemble a Catholic cardinal's hat).
But despite the problems and high ticket prices ($6 for a community-college show!), I have to give credit to the entire ensemble for sticking with such a complicated show. Brecht's Galileo is very well-written and definitely meant for the theatre. Just not college theatre.