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Cleveland Play House's Life of Galileo

The Life of Galileo runs until October 9 at the Cleveland Play House's Allen Theatre

With a $32 million “Power of 3″ fundraising campaign and a renovation project that’s been going on for a year, Cleveland Play House opened its doors to the public this month with Bertolt Brecht’s The Life of Galileo.

A couple days before seeing the show last week, I got to take a look at the newly renovated Allen Theatre during our PlayhouseSquare Partners meeting. I’d read a lot about the renovation over the last year so I knew a few of things to expect (for one, how they had transformed a cavernous theatre into a very intimate space), but I was still blown away. 

I think what most impressed was how well the theatre balances the new and the old — still respecting the old architecture and not harming or touching it, while creating a sleek lobby and instituting modern amenities and tech in the performance space. I think this balance is most clearly seen by how the acoustic panels on the ceiling and perforated metal panels along the wall adjust the acoustics of the room but still allow you to admire the Allen’s ornate decorative plasterwork and murals.

The Life of Galileo examines the later part of Galileo's life (played by Paul Whitworth) as his scientific discoveries fly in the face of religious dogma and politics. (Photo credit: Roger Mastroianni)

For its first show in their new space, the Cleveland Play House made a fitting choice with Brecht’s The Life of Galileo because it really showcased the capabilities of the new space.

The Life of Galileo focuses on the later part of Galileo’s life from his “discovery” of the telescope through his persecution and house arrest (with some liberties taken with his personal life – especially regarding Galileo’s daughter). Brecht himself witnessed and experienced political persecution during WWII and the Cold War, and to an extent his opposition to certain parties can be seen in the play’s discussions of dogma and the debate over whether someone should stand their ground in the face of oppression.

While staying true to the text and ideas of the work, the Play House contemporized the production through modern dress and by linking the play’s themes to our current political and dogmatic landscape.

The sun at the center of this production’s universe was Paul Whitworth as Galileo Galilei. He played the same role when Director Michael Donald Edwards helmed the play at Asolo Repertory Theatre last year. Not only was he physically an amazing match for the philosopher and scientist, but his performance fully captured the dynamic, revolutionary genius of the Father of Modern Science and the flawed, overindulgent nature of the man.

The combination of Paul Whitworth's performance (left) and the beautiful production design made The Life of Galileo an ideal start to the Play House's new life in the Allen Theatre. (Photo credit: Roger Mastroianni)

Fittingly, the rest of the ensemble revolved around Whitworth like the planets around the sun – none of them shining as brightly, but nonethless complementing and supporting the actor’s performance, contributing to a very strong production.

I especially enjoyed Robert Ellis, Sheldon Best, Stephen Caffrey and Jeremy Kendall’s performances as they rallied around Galileo and then were ultimately devastated by his recantation, as well as Myra Lucretia Taylor and Kim Krane who played the women in his life (his housekeeper and daughter).

While Signora Sarti and Virginia Galilei’s devoutness to the Church may have conflicted with Galileo’s new theories, Taylor and Krane did an excellent job at demonstrating their characters’ unconditional dedication to him (even when his confrontation against the Church greatly impacts their own lives).

I was also happy to see that the Cleveland Play House brought the quality of production design I’ve always enjoyed to their new space. Although the stage started out completely stripped (a nice touch that allowed the audience see all the way to the back wall), it quickly filled as the cast entered.

Projections and a strong use of multimedia helped modernize the production and demonstrate its relevancy in our current political landscape. (Photo credit: Roger Mastroianni)

Instead of utilizing huge pieces to set the various scenes, the production went with a simpler approach using a couple of flats and furniture. This allowed the moments of surprising multimedia to be even more impressive. For instance, when Galileo is showing off the views of the planets and moons that can be seen through his telescope, beautiful projections of our moon, the Milky Way, and Jupiter’s orbiting moons suddenly appear in the background.

While a production may take a risk in implementing video and projections into a play (especially if it’s not done well), the Play House did an excellent job incorporating it. It made Galileo’s passionate descriptions of the skys even more splendid. And on the occasion when Brecht’s speeches on politics get a little overwhelming, there are a few extravagant moments (like the trippy rap sequence that parallels the play to current issues) which jar your attention and re-invigorate the action.

From the renovated audience space to the performances — and most definitely the production design, The Life of Galileo is an ideal beginning to the Cleveland Play House’s new life in the Allen Theatre.

The production is playing until October 9th and tickets can be purchased online or by calling 216-241-6000.

The Life of Galileo / The Cleveland Play House 411:

Disclosure: I was provided 2 media passes to see The Life of Galileo; however, my opinions on the production are 100% my own.