Brecht's Life of Galileo turns a telescope on humanity

Changing our world view: Noë Tallen as Galileo
Charlie Gorrill

The constant war between passion and logic drives some of our most colorful and compelling stories (both on and off the stage). When those stories are elevated above the personal and writ large, we end up with titanic historical clashes such as that between reason and belief. The battle wasn't over yet when Bertolt Brecht wrote The Life of Galileo, nor is it now. Only the details have changed.

This is Brecht at his wordy, preachy, idea-a-minute best. David Hare's adaptation contemporizes the language while retaining the socio-political lattice. The setup is simple, if subversive: Galileo (Noë Tallen) takes on a new student named Ludvico (James Lekvin), who tells his instructor of an invention making waves in the Netherlands, a simple thing composed of a long tube and two lenses. It does not exist in Galileo's Italy.

Because he is an outrageous genius, Galileo figures out how to make one, even better than the original, and thus the telescope is (re)born. And because Galileo is something of a scoundrel, he scams his college chancellor into believing it's an original invention, thus earning a large sum of money (and blazing the trail for centuries of university intellectual-property imbroglios).

Yes, we are deep into Brecht's insistence that material realities trump all, and the next step is to show how the tube-and-lenses gizmo threatens to take down the Catholic Church. With his enthusiastic young charge Andrea (Eva Nelson), Galileo identifies Jupiter's moons, notes the procession of Venus, eyeballs the landscape of the moon, and, most vitally, develops tested evidence that Earth travels around the sun (and that our planet, and thus humanity, is not the center of the universe).

The church, famously, did not react well, proving true the earlier declaration by Galileo's friend Sagredo (Megan Engeseth): "Reason counts for nothing at all." Tallen to this point has brought a smug assurance to her role as Galileo, flashed through with a manipulative indulgence of other's lesser minds that at times verges on sadistic arrogance (to her considerable credit, one quickly forgets she is a woman playing a man). When Galileo's world comes crashing down, she evinces fear, justified paranoia, then blasted-out resignation.

It speaks well of our species, at least as depicted here, that we're not all barking mad or made blind by our affinity for power. The Vatican scientist Clavius (Engeseth; this eight-person ensemble, directed by Carin Bratlie, assumes more than 25 roles) takes great interest in Galileo's discoveries, and later Cardinal Bellarmin (Clarence Wethern) digs into the work after Galileo makes a comeback from a period of self-imposed silence.

But by the end, all seems lost. Galileo, a physical coward, caves in after being given a look at the Inquisition's torture room (though given his predilection for reason, that might not be out of character) and recants all he knows to be true in favor of the church's fairy tales. Having spent a career arguing against the church's self-interested preference for the spiritual status quo, he gives up the fight (although we are granted a final moment that reminds us that this conflict, in the long run, came out for the right).

Reason will triumph, then? Let's not hold our breath.

But with this Galileo, Brecht dug into the pre-modern world to identify evergreen themes: the power of knowledge, the intransigence of the ruling class, and the volatile strain of (meta)physics that runs through our shared history. This Theatre Pro Rata production at times feels hamstrung by the weight of the play's verbiage and speechifying, but the ensemble pulls together and extracts meaning and truth from a work designed to keep its audience at arm's length. This relatively young cast gives us a glimpse into infinity through the material lens, deftly portrays matters that have shaken the consciousness of nations, and allows us to ponder how the same mind wars are going on today (within ourselves, among the billions). Galileo is long, difficult, and quite worth the bother. 

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