I started my last review of a Loyola mainstage production by mentioning that I was a biochemistry major. This time around, that statement actually means something in relation to the play.
Galileo is part of “Celebrating Galileo,” Loyola’s way of commemorating the 400th anniversary of Galileo’s Letter to Christina of Lorraine. In this letter, the Italian scientist attempted to reconcile his idea of a heliocentric universe (one in which the Earth revolves about the stationary sun) with the teaching of the Catholic Church. His intentions backfired, and the letter eventually prompted the Inquisition to try and convict Galileo of heresy. He was forced to recant his writings and to never again argue in favor of the heliocentric model.
Loyola’s play explores this historical event with a focus on the tired yet passionate, sarcastic yet gentle Galileo (professional actor Ross Lehman) and those closest to him. This includes his own sweet and anxious daughter Virginia (sophomore Alexa Haynes) and his posse, made up of the full-of-wonder student Andrea (sophomore Audrey Anderson), “the little monk” turned physicist (senior Alex Nolen) and the hopeful mechanic Federzoni (senior Seamus McMahon).
The challenge playwright Bertolt Brecht faced was to tell a story that nearly everyone knows the ending to (the Earth does revolve around the sun, after all). In order to do this, he looked more into the emotions and thoughts of those involved at the time of the events rather than the events themselves, using artistic elements and unique staging.
Having a stage centered in the room, made up of circles and ellipses of various sizes and heights (which was punny granted the play’s topic), allowed the cast to use the entire theater to its advantage. During the performance, actors run up and down aisles and characters frequently come and go throughout the scenes. This near constant motion throughout the play contrasted with the more emotional scenes, during which the few actors that were onstage would barely move, forcing the audience to pay attention to only the character speaking and making those scenes more powerful.
Three sets of screens situated around the perimeter of the theater displayed quotes from Galileo, images of the stars or simply the scene number and location of the action throughout the play. In between scenes, one or more actors would come out to recite a quote that was being projected, making the scene transitions smooth even if there was a dramatic time jump.
During major transitions (such as after the intermission), other techniques were used. At this time, almost the entire 17-person cast (Galileo was the only one not present) took the stage for a musical number. The song was about the events that occurred before the intermission, and it was meant to show the public’s feelings about Galileo. It was a nice way to introduce the second half of the performance, but it could have been used to further the plot a bit more.
Having such a large cast had its advantages and downfalls. It allowed the actors to fill the theater and truly immerse the audience in Galileo’s world, but it also made the theater feel too crowded at times (especially for those sitting close to the stage). From the front row, my view was blocked by minor characters more than once.
Because of the large cast, the costumes also suffered. There were a few standouts — the pope’s robes and Virginia’s dresses were beautiful — but many times actors wore only enough clothing over their white T-shirts, black pants and converse shoes to distinguish them as a certain type of person, such as a monk, commoner or cardinal. Being able to see the clothing underneath the costumes (especially the converse shoes) made the characters a tad inauthentic.
This inauthenticity was combated, however, by each actor committing wholeheartedly to his or her character. Even those who played multiple characters throughout the play were able to take on a completely different presence from one character to the next.
A standout performance came from Anderson, as Galileo’s eager pupil Andrea. Andrea was pivotal to the play: He was Galileo’s biggest fan and wore his emotions on his sleeve, especially during the scene where Galileo recants his findings about the universe.
Galileo himself, played by the experienced Lehman rather than a Loyola student, had a mellow demeanor, especially compared to the other, somewhat exaggerated characters. Lehman’s acting credentials were obvious in some scenes (specifically those where he was either incredibly angry or especially depressed), but in other scenes he was overshadowed by Loyola’s own actors. It made me feel like the only thing Lehman had over the other actors was age — which is more of a compliment to Loyola’s talented students than a strike at Lehman.
But behind all the special effects, acting and music, is the story of a man. A man who is stuck between science and religion. A man who gave his sight in order to see the truth — a slave to his passions. A man who was heightened by his pupils to almost god-like status, but who is ultimately human and fears pain and death. A man who “cannot say no to an old wine or a new thought.”
Galileo’s story transcends the science community and is able to provoke questions from audience members from all walks of life. Are we willing to give up the comfort of our old ways in order to see the truth? Just because something has always been done one way, does that mean it’s for the best? Are we strong enough to stand up to something much bigger than ourselves in the name of what is right?
Ultimately (despite some technicalities in the play and a rather long runtime), nearly everyone can find a way to relate to the story of Galileo Galilei. That’s why everyone, but especially Loyola’s students, should go see this play.