Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Theatre AUM: "Galileo"

Change is difficult. With thousands of years' acceptance of a belief that the earth was the center of the universe and that all the stars and planets revolved around it, and with the support of governments and the Church, anyone who dared to challenge this creed was sure to be in for a tough time.

Enter Galileo Galilei in Seventeenth Century Italy who concluded via scientific method that indeed the sun was the center of our cosmos with all other heavenly bodies circling it; this was in direct conflict with the "certainties" that kings and prelates had relied on to keep their jobs intact. -- Scientific evidence did not matter; after all, "people in power monopolize truth...and put down all objections" through sheer might and influence.

Sound familiar? -- Just check today's news reports on several subjects where an intractable egocentric majority voice often thwarts level-headed evidence-based proposals that might just improve the conditions of countless citizens. -- And what better reason for Theatre AUM to produce Bertolt Brecht's Galileo as part of their educational theatre mission.

Written in 1943 while Brecht was living in America, the impact of World War II was very strong. Brecht's was a theatre of ideas that intended to break from the Nineteenth Century's fashionable romantic-realism by emphasizing the theatricality of his plays in order to alienate the audience's emotional connection with his characters. This Verfremdungseffekt provided constant reminders that they were in the theatre rather than experiencing a slice of real life; Brecht's plays often incorporate song-commentaries, narration, characters directly addressing the audience, projections, and other conventions that disengage the audience from emotions and force a consideration of his ideas. [And Theatre AUM has wisely provided ample program notes and a glossary of "things to know" to help audiences understand the many scientific, religious, and historical references scattered throughout the script.]

Under Mike Winkelman's inventive direction, Brecht's "alienation" is brought into play with Michael Krek's open-plan set and vivid screen projections and Val Winkelman's modern dress black-and-white geometric patterned costumes that suggest both the certainties of place and character as well as the grey-areas in between. -- Relying on the ensemble playing of actors, most of whom play multiple (and often gender-switched) roles, overlapping and repetitive speech, and incorporation of Twenty-first Century songs and dances, this distancing of audience and actor is strong, though it is confusing when dialogue is at times delivered at such a rapid pace to be almost unintelligible.

The central idea of the first of the play's fourteen scenes positions Galileo's [Michael Krek] scientific doubt against the scientifically unsupported astronomical certainties mentioned above, and continues this throughout. -- As it covers many years in Galileo's life -- from the discovery of Jupiter's moons and the doubt of an earth-centered universe, through charges of heresy and a trial by the Inquisition that forced hum to recant his discovery, to imprisonment and blindness -- the one constant is Galileo's need for empirical evidence brought about by healthy doubt of anything that could not be proved with evidence. -- When challenged with the question "Where is God?" in his findings, Galileo counters with his "belief in the human race and its possibilities." --- A lot for audiences to consider.

The AUM company's performances [a large ensemble cast of experienced and neophyte actors] keep the audience on edge as they assume different roles and follow the script's demands to alienate their viewers. And we go in-and-out of connecting with them because of these theatrical conventions.

But it is equally challenging for us to disengage completely from Brecht's well-drawn characters when they are depicted truthfully. -- Tina Neese, as Galileo's daughter Virginia, ranges from a naive young girl to a much wiser woman convincingly. La'Brandon Tyre's portrayal of the Cardinal Inquisitor is confidently sinister in his approach, and unflinching in wielding his power through ironic interpretations of dialogue and an utterly unflappable manner. Sam Wallace plays Andrea Sarti, Galileo's protege, also from a credible idealist youth to a disappointed and enraged adult. -- And we engage with them.

As the central character, Michael Krek depicts Galileo's frustrations and passion for scientific and rational pursuits with comfort, and tracks Galileo's ageing with subtle shifts of posture and vocal nuances. -- Above all, however, he ably gets Brecht's points across so audiences leave the theatre ready to discuss these matters at more length. Good work.