Yvonne Korshak reviews Off-Broadway, Broadway, Film and Art

Tag: Tony Speciale

Review | Galileo by Bertolt Brecht | Translated by Charles Laughton | Directed by Brian Kulick | Choreographed by Tony Speciale | With F. Murray Abraham, Robert Dorfman and Amanda Quaid | Classic Stage Company

The conflict in Galileo is iconic:  freedom of ideas vs. censorship.  Brecht peppers his play and his character of Galileo (1564-1642 ) with some Marxist views which are anachronistic but the play triggers thought and thrills one at the power of human intellect.

Everybody’s having a good time looking through the telescope Galileo has recently perfected, and figuring out its benefits and fiscal profits.  Galileo, short of money, wouldn’t mind reaping some profit, too, but fundamentally he’s peering into his telescope in his quest for truth, recording his observations, and thinking about them.  His observations and calculations reveal to him that the earth rotates around the sun, not the other way around.

Galileo understands, of course, that his heliocentric view runs directly counter to Catholic dogma in which Man and his earth are at the center of God’s creation, but, driven by the passion to know, excited and even arrogant in the power of his discoveries, he seems unworried that the Church, through its powerful enforcement arm, the Inquisition, will censor his ideas or threaten his personal safety.

In one of the great scenes in theater, Cardinal Barberini, Galileo’s old friend, is transformed from an ordinary man into The Pope as he stands, center stage, and is dressed, with the aid of an advisor, into full papal regalia, buttoned from neck to hem into to his long gown, taking up the mitre, until, crowned by the tiara, his identity becomes merged fully with the Church.  And, having resisted to this point, he now accedes to his advisor’s insistence that Galileo’s heresy must be stopped, and he releases Galileo to the Inquisition.

It’s enough just to see the Inquisition’s horrific instruments of torture — Galileo recants.   Recant – it’s worth pausing to think about what it means.   Driven by fear, Galileo is forced to state publicly that what he knows to be the truth is not the truth.

His “unheroic” recantation disillusions some of his followers.  But they weren’t shown the instruments of torture.  Among the disappointed, Galileo’s servant says “Unhappy is the land that breeds no hero.”  “No, Andrea, unhappy is the land that needs a hero,” Galileo answers.  Brecht’s Galileo is as much a man of the flesh as of the intellect, one of the keen strengths of the play.

His geocentric view now branded a heresy, Galileo spends the rest of his life under house arrest, but he continues his scientific studies — examining sunspots by peering through his telescope to the point where he blinds himself.  His followers smuggle the results of his investigations beyond the borders of Italy and to the larger world.  Brecht believed that revolutionary ideas are ultimately unstoppable:  in this instance he was right.

F.. Murray Abraham portrays Galileo with a gruffness that suggests a weary experience with the world, but misses the inner excitement and inspiration of his life as a scientist.  Robert Dorfman conveys exquisitely the gentle humor of Brecht’s Pope, thoughtful, ironic, amused even at himself, until he takes on the rigidity of high position.  Amanda Quaid as Galileo’s daughter effectively moves from joyous young love to its disappointment, to a nunnish devotion to her aging father, representing the fallout of the effects of Galileo’s scientific drive on those he loves.

The set is so evocative one seems to hear the music of the spheres.  Suspended globes of different sizes in bluish tones conjure up the solar system, their appealingly rough surfaces referring to Gallileo’s key — and religiously controversial — observation that the moon isn’t perfectly smooth but has mountains.  At times a round projection suggests a view through a telescope — here I think this production missed a bet:  instead of generic views of starry skies, etc., they would have done well to show what Galileo with the magnification available actually saw when he put his eye to the lens, including the way, over time, things moved.

This is a play that I think is inportant to know, and here’s your chance to see it well produced and performed.  Earlier, Classic Stage presented a staged reading of Galileo, including the play’s two possible endings, one “hopeful,” one “hopeless.”  The reading included both endings:  here we have one.

Galileo plays at Classic Stage Company in Manhattan’s East Village through March 18, 2012.

Unnatural Acts.  Photo:  Classic Stage

Review | Unnatural Acts | Written by Members of the Plastic Theatre | Conceived and Directed by Tony Speciale | Classic Stage Company

Unnatural Acts is a strong and thought provoking play based on a true and tragic event:  the purge of a group of gay men at Harvard University in 1920.  The catalyst was the suicide of Cyril Wilson, assumed to be gay, which led Harvard to get rid of the group of homosexuals associated with him, evidently to avoid scandal.

One by one, ten students and one instructor suspected of being part of Wilson’s cadre of homosexual friends were interrogated by a “Secret Court” of high level administrators which determined their “guilt” as homosexuals, or their “innocence.”  Most were found “guilty” and were expelled.  We learn, by the end of the play, of the blight the investigation and expulsion cast on almost all of their lives.

It’s a fascinating and very clever theatrical choice that the only characters we see in the play are the eleven directly affected men.  The Harvard disciplinary board is a dark presence, its activities illuminated only by the monologs of the accused young men called in to testify and responding to questions.  All focus is on the men themselves, their lives, personalities, purposes, sexual drives (though oddly, nobody seems in love), interactions, and the effect on these of the punitive purge.

At the start of the play, the eleven react variously to Wilson’s suicide.  Some close friends feel grief and attend his funeral, acting as pallbearers, while others who knew him casually are more distant.  As the play advances, though, the noose tightens equally around all of them.  That’s a powerful structure.

Early on there’s a wild party in the suite of Earnest Roberts that I think everyone who sees the play is bound to remember for a long time.  It’s very well staged.  There’s drinking, music, lovemaking, and banter while Roberts, “the

The party's warming up ...  from Unnatural Acts.  Photo:  Classic Stage

The party’s warming up …  from Unnatural Acts.  Photo:  Classic Stage

ringleader,” makes witty proclamations from tabletops, wearing a gorgeous sequined flapper dress.  The process that will crush most of them is well underway but they don’t understand that yet, partly because these men, mainly sons of privilege, have a sense of invulnerability.

But soon enough they’re all roped in.   Being a congressman’s son won’t get you out of this one.

Under interrogation, some are damned for telling the truth and others damned for lying.  One egregious liar who’s gay is exonerated and one truth-teller who’s straight receives a relatively mild one-year suspension (and may be the only one who goes on to live a long time and have the kind of fulfilled career that Harvard men look forward to).

The disciplinary board appears to have tried sincerely to separate those who were “guilty” from those who were “innocent” — as those words applied to gays in 1920.  But “sincerity” is irrelevant — the play drives home that secret deliberative bodies are inherently cruel and unjust, and that intolerance set in motion against a class of people judged to be different from oneself is cruel and unjust.

Why did Harvard do it?  Since the disciplinary board is a kind of composite character in the play, I missed knowing what motivated them.  Was it blind prejudice?  Avoidance of scandal?  Or?  The investigation begins right after Wilson’s death and Harvard already had a reputation as the most “faggoty” school: this suggests the administration had been looking the other way with regard to gay activities until Wilson’s suicide raised the fear of scandal, but that’s a guess.  Those eleven men would have been guessing about that, too, and talking it over.

Tony Speciale conceived the play and shepherded it through a process of collaborative creation with the cast, and it’s presented as an ensemble piece.  The actors are for the most part very good, though some characters could use greater differentiation — that’s an awful lot of young men in suits to keep track of (though it’s easy to remember the nude track star and Roberts in a dress!).  That nobody’s in love, however, is unlikely.  A focus on a deep love among these individuals would heighten the play’s impact.  The direction, with dramatic switches from a bright to a dark stage, is tense and clear.

This is really an example of many cooks who didn’t spoil the broth, but arrived at a sturdy, unified drama that tells an important story.

Unnatural Acts plays at Classic Stage in New York City’s East Village — through July 10 run extended through July 31.

Review | Swann in Love by Pamela Hansford Johnson | after Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past | Directed by Tony Speciale | Classic Stage Company

… The Proust Project …

Why have an off night? It’s not enough for Classic Stage to be putting on currently three major plays by three different Greek playwrights, they’re using their one night off to do their Proust Project, a series of four Monday nights of dramatized readings after Proust’s great early 20th century novel, Remembrance of Things Past.  I’m so glad they are!

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