Chicago Theater Review: THE LIFE OF GALILEO (Remy Bumppo at Greenhouse Theater Center)

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by Lawrence Bommer on March 29, 2016

in Theater-Chicago


It’s intriguing but frustrating that Bertolt Brecht refuses to dramatize the most potentially powerful moment in The Life of Galileo. (It’s like presenting Romeo and Juliet without a love scene.) That’s the setup and depiction of the Italian physicist/astronomer’s most infamous defeat—when, in 1633, under threat of torture from the Inquisition, the great Galileo Galilei recants his life’s work: He denies that the earth revolves around the sun.

Caleb Probst, Todd Michael Kiech, Stephanie Diaz, Kelsey Brennan, Kevin Matthew Reyes, and Shawn Douglass in THE LIFE OF GALILEO.

In that fateful abdication of authority, as Galileo (when he gets voice back) declares at play’s end, he sold out science. Worse, his betrayal will allow future pioneers to ignore the needs of the people in order to pander to princes, defense departments, and the military-industrial complex. “Uneasy the land that needs heroes.” Even so, Galileo has a follower smuggle out his second “Discorsi,” a gift to the future.

Kelsey Brennan and Shawn Douglass in THE LIFE OF GALILEO.

Until that “capitulation,” Galileo, the secular saint of Brecht’s 1945 drama, here richly restored by Remy Bumppo in David Hare’s 2005 translation and adaptation, had traversed the peninsula from Padua to Venice to Florence to Rome to promote the telescope that the Italian “borrowed” from the Dutch. More importantly, Galileo’s findings promulgated his pre-Newtonian “law of falling objects.” Crucially, based on his exploration of sunspots and the four moons of Jupiter, Galileo corroborated Copernicus’s heliocentric hypothesis of the solar system. Drunk on this “early morning of beginnings,” he proclaims that “Everything is in motion.” He conveys the contagious enthusiasm of a kid in a candy store on Christmas morning. But God, it seems, hasn’t shown up in Gaileo’s busy telescope. This upsets many.

Kelsey Brennan in THE LIFE OF GALILEO.Throughout Brecht and Hare’s 155-minute tour de science, Shawn Douglass’s driven seeker of knowledge comforts his devoted acolytes, patient housekeeper, and conflicted, astrologically-minded daughter with a core conviction–his supposedly invincible belief in the power and triumph of reason over, well, religion.

For Galileo the goal of all inquiry is simply to make us “less stupid.” Don’t despair that “we’re so shut in” because “truth is the child of time.” “We will question everything” means working overtime to disprove our own theories until, by process of elimination, they’re all that remain. “There is happiness in doubt.” Anyway you can’t unsee what you’ve once seen. The facts will set you free, even though Giordano Bruno was burnt at the stake in 1600 for just such free thinking. No, Galileo trustingly believes the promotion of his mathematics-loving friend Cardinal Barbieri to pope will pave a path for progress. The joke, of course, is on us.

Shawn Douglass and Stephen Spencer in THE LIFE OF GALILEO.

For Brecht, science was the handmaiden of socialism. Hare concurs. Updating the accusations, director Nick Sandys’s modern-dress revival is heavy with intentional anachronisms. It parallels Galileo’s discoveries with projected placards recalling the testing of the atom bomb at Los Alamos, and even the border conflict between Mexico and the U.S. (a bit of a stretch). Along with a Renaissance masque and appropriate chalkboard projections, there’s a sardonic puppet show: For all its Papist jibes, it implicitly mocks creationists, anti-vaxxers, flat-earthers, stem-cell skeptics, climate change Holocaust deniers, and other know-nothings.

Susaan Jamshidi, Henry Bolzon, Caleb Probst and Stephen Spencer in THE LIFE OF GALILEO.

Of course, Galileo’s heretical truth-telling, which he dared to print in non-Latin vernacular, threatened to displace not just the earth from the center of the universe but, worse, God from the cosmos, and, worst, the church from its plenipotentiary powers. If there’s no Ptolemaically-perfect crystal spheres, no Aristotelian absolutism, no promotion of our planet to the cynosure of creation, there’s no point to tithes, sacraments, indulgences and papal tiaras. Not incidentally, Galileo’s apostasy also ruins his well-named daughter Virginia’s chance at marriage with Ludovico, wealthy heir of a vine-growing dynasty. (In reality Galileo, a bad dad, consigned her to a nunnery and effectively forgot her.)

Susaan Jamshidi, Stephanie Diaz, Shawn Douglass, and Stephen Spencer in THE LIFE OF GALILEO.

Though preferring methodical exposition over urgent revelation, Sandys’s sturdy staging never feels as long as the running time. If Shawn Douglass delivers a somewhat naïve and child-like Galileo, this needy researcher is fortunate to have the ardent zeal of disciple Andrea Sarti (Kelsey Brennan), the maternal ministrations of daughter Virginia (Susaan Jamshidi), and his supple friend Sagredo (Stephen Spencer). As his ecclesiastical enemies or princely patrons, Henry Bolzon, Blake Montgomery and Kevin Matthew Reyes incarnate institutionalized ignorance. But even here Brecht allows for some an almost tender treatment of doubters: Two big speeches portray them as true believers whose sufferings on earth signify nothing if there’s no reward in the afterlife that Galileo subverts.


Inevitably, The Life of Galileo is an extremely contemporary cautionary tale, both against a credo yielding to coercion and for the imperative of speaking truth to power. We couldn’t need it more.

Todd Michael Liech, Kelsey Brennan, and Kevin Matthew Reyes in THE LIFE OF GALILEO.

photos by Johnny Knight Photography

The Life of Galileo
Remy Bumppo
Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln Ave.
Thurs – Sat at 7:30; Sun at 2:30
plus select Wednesdays and matinees
scheduled to end on May 1, 2016
for tickets, call 773.404.7336 or visit Remy Bumppo

for more theater info, visit Theatre in Chicago

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