From the first moment — a blast of horns as the none-too-svelte titular figure throws cold water on his nude, bathing self — it’s clear director Mark Wing-Davey means to pump as much stage dynamism as possible into the idea-rich but talk-heavy landscape that is Brecht’s “Life of Galileo.” Aided in that goal by David Hare’s witty, cogent 1994 “new version” (adapted largely from the author’s third and final ’56 revision of the much-reworked play), this Berkeley Rep season opener succeeds in making a weighty if brilliant 60-year-old play about 15th-century scientific politics seem vivid, urgent and relevant.
At base “Galileo” is about the censorship of ideas, an ever-contemporary issue whose immediacy Wing-Davey underlines by stripping this production of any “period” atmosphere. Meg Neville’s costumes are (apart from the papal ones) generically late-20th-century; Douglas Stein’s set is a warehouse-like workplace of corrugated tin walls with mechanized moving parts; Alexander V. Nichols splashes slide/video projections (astronomical charts, mathematical equations) onto the auditorium sides.
The dense yet crackling language here suggests how much overlap exists between Hare’s usual argumentative human drama and Brecht’s more didactic approach. If the text’s stepped-up warmth, humor and passion seem characteristic of Hare (and Wing-Davey), they nonetheless depart from Brecht only in minor cuts and enlivened rephrasing. Likewise, the large, exemplary cast — which at one point includes a full children’s choir — invests even its most archetypal roles with full-blooded contemporaneity.
Ground zero for that tact is Michael Winters’ Galileo, a brash, flippant, blustering figure whose bottomless excitement at his and others’ scientific discoveries fights constant exasperation over their financial and political constraints.
On the cusp between medieval superstition and Enlightenment, Europe is experiencing growth pains. Inventive “wonders” like the telescope are received with delight, as both entertainment novelties and tools for marketplace/military use.
But larger, more abstract breakthroughs — like the idea that the Earth revolves around the sun, rather than vice versa — worry a religious power juggernaut nowhere stronger than in Galileo’s own native Italy. And by extension , the forthcoming Age of Reason threatens society’s whole feudal, fear-based order. As the saying goes, knowledge is a dangerous thing.
Overconfident in his belief that truth must override all obstacles, Galileo’s findings attract international fame even as he heedlessly risks papal censure, with the Grand Inquisitor (Ken Ruta) his ominous chief foe.
Ultimately, Galileo is forced to recant his “heretical” beliefs, while continuing to do research in imprisoned secrecy. It’s Brecht’s contention that this neck-saving moral compromise forever laid physics at the mercy of capitalistic powers-that-be, rather than letting it be governed by the loftier goals that (in theory at least) propel medical science.
“Galileo” vaults through some three decades and myriad settings, from a Padua workshop to the Vatican. But the 14 scenes in Hare’s version remain essentially debates on science, theology and social politics. Despite their accessible dynamism, it’s an uphill battle keeping these three hours from growing academically dry.
Exhibiting the same gonzo, sometimes over-the-top energy that marked his well-traveled “Mad Forest” and American Conservatory Theater “Angels in America, ” Wing-Davey succeeds in keeping fustiness at bay. The play’s epic scope, human dimensions and barbed wit have seldom seemed this potent. Fourth-wall gymnastics , incongruous musical choices and other gambits keep one wide awake throughout.
Only the purest, least text-driven coups de theatre seem gratuitous — notably a court ball-dance with mannequins (awkwardly performed on opening night), a chaotic carnival scene, and one key late sequence counterpointed with a Spanish TV game show to no clear end.
Such excesses of sound and fury just fleetingly blur the evening’s engrossing clarity. Timed to honor Brecht’s birth centenary, just as U.S. politicos are once again trying to post the Ten Commandments in public schools, this sharp “Galileo” makes its historical battle between science and religion seem as timely as today’s headlines.