Boston, Massachusetts, March 2009
[from an email to the family; if you're looking for a review,
Louise Kennedy in the Boston Globe is more negative than I am but,
for the most part has it, I think, pretty close to right]
Now here comes the hard part. I want to try to describe this production, and I know I'm not going to be able to. I wish I had some visuals. Let me start with the plot, because that's easy: it's about Galileo trying to convince the Church that accepting the Copernican idea that the earth moves involves reinterpreting rather than contradicting the Bible (like other stuff the Bible says), and the Church, mostly in the person of Pope Urban VIII, also from Florence, and whom Galileo had met before he was Pope, arguing that for the Church accepting the idea that the laws of nature were mathematical and separate from God made God "unnecessary." Not a stupid argument at all.
But here's the thing: the play was, especially in the first act, a little static and explanatory, and made up with passionate argument and high-flown language what it lacked in real passion -- but that turned out not to matter in the least. The sound, lighting, set and costumes were so amazingly effective that even as I was thinking, Oh, you don't need to explain that, I was happy to have it explained because of the way it was presented.
So. Imagine a large stage with two side walls and a back wall made of an openwork grid, kind of like a huge metal wine rack. There are white things in each opening of the grid. They turned out to be candles, but at first you couldn't tell. The grid, all rectangular, had openwork doors at intervals; sometimes they were open and sometimes people could close them. That's the three sides of the stage; they created a rectangular playing space, with entrances at the various points in the grid; you could often see people coming on from backstage before they got to openings in the grid.
But the main thing you saw when you came into the theatre, inside that square defined by the gridwork, was a circular curtain, suspended from an overhead circular track about 20 feet up; the circle was probably 20 feet in diameter. At the beginning all we saw was the circular curtain, lit irregularly from outside. The actors could, and regularly did, work in the space in front of and at the sides of the curtain, outside the circle.
And here's the thing; the curtain could be moved from on stage with tassels that hung down, so that it could be completely closed, or an open semicircle, facing us, or completely open, with the curtains gathered at the sides (think of the way the curtains in a hospital room slide around to create spaces). What regularly happened was the the scene in the circle would be, say, Galileo's study, with a desk, and a telescope, and a couple of inclined ramps for demonstrating the properties of motion; the scene would end and a character or two would be outside the circle; the curtain would be swished closed by virtually invisible stagehands, swirl around the circle enclosing it, swirl back open virtually without stopping, and there would be an entirely new set -- say, the local bishop's office, with an altar at the back. It was magic. And it happened a dozen times, and every time you were astonished.
But that's not all, or even the most of it. The space in the circle was a highly polished floor with a map of the world on it -- and it revolved. We didn't know that at first, but at one point suddenly Galileo's study swirled around and we were on the other side of his desk. And then we discovered that at the very middle of this circle was a smaller circle, which could either stay still while the larger one turned, or turn in the opposite direction. At one point Galileo was in the small, middle circle looking through his telescope and presumably making one discovery after another, slowly rotating counterclockwise, while on the outer circle, rotating clockwise, arguments about his discoveries were being conducted by people who were using the rotation to dramatize their relationships -- for instance, someone being defeated in an argument standing still and being carried around the back and sometime stepping off into the wings, or thinking of a new argument and storming back counterclockwise around the circle to take the dispute up again. The blocking was unbelievable. It sounds way too theoretical as I explain it: at the time it was just immediately and viscerally effective.
That's not all, either. It turned out that the white things in the gridwork were candles, hundreds of them, and at one point Galileo's daughter, who was a nun, starts lighting them. As she lit a few, others starting coming on till the whole gridwork was full of them, creating this amazing universe full of stars, all around the acting area. At one point in the second act, the back wall -- the gridwork -- moved slowly forward till it was right across the middle of the circle, and a couple of scenes were played in front of, and through, it. I was pretty surprised that it moved, but what was even surprising was when it turned around with the turntable. I have no distant clue how that was done. And again, it wasn't showy; it was part of the action. At another point all the gridwork's doors were closed, each by a red-robed priest, and the gridwork became Galileo's prison.
Lots more, but the real stunner was the end of the play: Galileo is locked in his prison, and the fictional character he'd created while writing his "Dialogue" appears to tell him that he's still right. They laugh. Behind them the wall has about disappeared and it's all the candles -- and behind them, even more points of light, and more reflected on the polished floor: the Galaxy. The lighting focuses down on Galileo and Callisto (I think his name was), and they turn and walk into the stars, and vanish. The end. Cheap shot, but there was at least a ten-second pause before the applause started, and I had tears in my eyes.