TAMPA — A 70-year-old play about a scientist who lived 400 years ago shouldn't seem so timely.
Bertolt Brecht's Life of Galileo offers a fairly straightforward biography of one of history's most gifted thinkers. His discoveries and insights enlightened the world but aroused the ire of the Catholic Church, which accused him of heresy for daring to suggest that the Earth rotated around the sun, and was only one of several planets that did so.
The parallels to contemporary political discourse about religion vs. science are hard to miss. Galileo plainly sees through his telescope that moons rotate around Jupiter and that Venus appears in phases, like our own moon. Because those observations are at odds with traditional biblical interpretations, church leaders say the telescope is wrong.
The current production from the University of South Florida's College of the Arts is inconsistent but generally rewarding. A few excellent performances and some stunning design work overcome the weaknesses, which include some unfortunate casting.
Perhaps the best indication of the production's overall success is that its length — over three hours — isn't uncomfortable.
One obvious highlight is a sturdy lead performance by Jack Holloway. He's on stage for almost all of the play and never falters in his portrayal of Galileo as a man at first enthralled by the pursuit of knowledge, increasingly frustrated by the inadequacy of logic to permeate superstition, and finally shamed by what he perceives as his own cowardice. Holloway's physical being appears to change as Galileo's downfall progresses.
Holloway is one of the Tampa Bay area's top professional actors, and many of the student actors in the large cast fare pretty well when they share scenes with him. One obvious standout is Caroline Johnson as Galileo's daughter Virginia. Johnson's performance is self-assured and charismatic but tastefully understated.
The 20-person cast and a shortage of men in this year's crop of actors in the USF Theatre Department combined to create the show's most glaring flaw: Director C. David Frankel had to cast young women in many male roles. It's a major distraction and at times makes the proceedings kind of hard to follow.
Frankel's direction is steady but fluid. Brecht's script blends some unusual elements (a chorus that appears periodically and almost mocks the characters in a nursery-rhyme cadence) into the play's general realism. The juxtaposition never seems jarring. And Frankel lends an overall quietness to the production and allows the history-changing events and the personal melodrama to unfold subtly.
Work from two student designers adds immeasurably to the production. Shannon Dunbar's industrial, almost futuristic, set is an odd but effective counterpoint to the ancient storyline, and Kristen Geisler's lighting design is moody, complex and often quite beautiful.
Another highlight is the lush costume design by faculty member Marilyn Gaspardo Bertch.
Galileo is the first production in a USF theater season devoted to plays about science. Also scheduled are David Auburn's Proof and Karel Capek's R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots).
Marty Clear is a freelance writer who specializes in performing arts. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.