With Galileo, MET reaches for lofty ideas at the expense of feelings

A century after the dawn of modernism, artists exert less energy advancing theories of aesthetics and more just trying to keep the arts schlepping along until the next First Friday. So an idea-driven playwright and director like Bertolt Brecht seems even more singular than he must have in his prime. Today, it’s difficult to imagine theater artists who are determined to smash the art form and build anew, to dismiss great traditions as a matter of principle while assailing some of the most vital newer ones — such as naturalism, in Brecht’s case. How rare to propagandize a worldview while shouting with each new work, “No, this is theater!”

Rarer still: For all that passionate theorizing, to make the art more accessible. Because Brecht’s foremost concern was involving an audience in ideas, a play like his late-period Galileo is, at the surface level, readily intelligible. In the current large-cast production from Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre, the play passes along like a slow parade, its ideas as big as floats. Galileo believes that the Earth orbits the sun; the church does not. Faced with torture, Galileo renounces his heresy and seemingly retires. Humankind’s Age of Reason is thereby postponed, and the peasantry toils on, yoked in ignorance and superstition.

It’s not unpleasant. T. Max Graham is an appealing Galileo, muttering his truths in a musical purr. Lecturing a neighborhood boy or discussing Galileo’s findings with a coterie of followers, Graham trusts the words and ideas to create excitement. They do: Though prosaic, the dialogue — helped by Christmas lights and some spare effects — reveals the glory of the skies even as it murders the mystery of heaven. As always, there’s a loving junk-shop look to the MET’s production. The performance space sits in the middle, with audience members on church pews on opposite sides. A geocentric model of the universe is hauled out early on, and it’s suitably gorgeous; strangely, a key moment involves a rolling office chair.

The first half drags at times, especially in some didactic scenes promulgating ideas that are already clear. Allan L. Boardman and Sergio Alvarado contribute witty performances, and Susan Wiegand’s costumes offer, in their plenitude and variety, some welcome energy. An inquisitor’s get-up is, I hope, intentionally distracting: In black velour and a lurid red cape, the symbol of religious intolerance looks like the inside of a jewelry box gone satanic.

The second act kicks off with an invigorating verse-and-rhythm number that incorporates chant, dance and puppetry. In Brechtian fashion, this long sequence reminds us that we’re watching a play. Because he believed that meaning was lost if audiences were swept up in mere story, Brecht emphasized the theater’s artificiality.

This might not seem an important point. Of course, the theater is artificial — that’s why some of us still value it.

But the Brechtian project is still valid. Most interestingly, it reminds me to question why we see what we do on the stage.

An epilogue in this Galileo, for example, demonstrates Brecht’s idea that the world paid a price for the postponement of Galileo’s age of wisdom. Brecht accomplishes this with a fine bit of dramatic action, which Bob Paisley stages with clear economy. That said, the sequence packs little punch. The lights, which we expect to dim at dramatic moments to focus our attention, burn on without comment. The music fails to kick up, and the actors accomplish their business with all the efficiency of tollbooth attendants doling out change. Attentive audiences will find this all a bit disappointing or might be seduced. We might ask, Why? I turned this over for hours afterward.

Me: Why is this ending so flat?

My brain: Because we’re not supposed to feel. We’re supposed to think.

Me: What if I feel that I want to think about how flat it was?

My brain: What matters is not that you sympathize with the characters and their triumphs. What matters is that you engage with the ideas. Emotion, involvement, a fourth wall, entertainment — to Brecht, all these are distractions. The idea is paramount.

Me: Is that why the actors pretend to stumble over their lines?

My brain: Sure! That’s why their performances are baldly presentational. That’s why we hear a voice calling out light cues. That’s why each scene opens with a poem that was archaic even in the 1930s. That explains the office chair.

Me: By that standard, couldn’t any flaw in the production be excused by calling it intentionally Brechtian?

My brain: See? That’s an idea!

Me: But shouldn’t a great play inspire me to feel and think at the same time?

My brain: [Pretends not to hear.]

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Categories: A&E, Stage