GALILEO -- At the Arena through November 23.
It has been only 15 years since Arena Stage put on Bertolt Brecht's "Galileo," and now here it is again, opening the theater's 30th season.
In this time, there may have been some turnover, even in Arena's faithful audience, which justifies the theater's doing it again for those who unfortunately missed it before.
But it is also worthwhile to see this complicated depiction of the relationship of science and politics at a greater distance from the space race and a still greater one from the atomic bomb.
In the movies, during these years, the old character of the scientist as befuddled but benevolent scholar has given way to the scientist as all-powerful madman, crazed with the idea of extinguishing the human race merely for the sake of the feat and prevented only by some odd accident or puny heroics from carrying it out. Not only does all this seem unconnected with the conflicts of scientific ethics one now sees aired daily, but it commits the dramatic crime of having become a bore.
Brecht's Galileo, as richly portrayed by Robert Prosky, lacks power -- even, as it turns out, the common power of the individual to sacrifice himself to dramatize his beliefs.
But he is a full and fascinating character, impressive and shameful, curious and funny, spiritual and greedy, and magnificently able to embody a dozen contradictory philosophical arguments.
On an austere stage, director Martin Fried has masterfully sketched the high and low pageantry of 17th-century Italy. A dummy that holds the pope's robes towers over the lesser figure of the pope himself, as an awesome symbol overshadowing the man's natural humanity. A carnival crowd hilariously brandishes what it thinks are Galileo's ideas, instantly giving the lie to the Galileo's belief, throughout the play, that giving knowledge to the downtrodden will make them better than the princes, landlords and priests who have conspired to keep them docile through ignorance. Galileo's daughter kneels and speaks humbly of having consulted "a real astronomer" to get her horoscope, and the similarity to her religious piety reminds us that this much-feared unleashing of scientific truths turned out to be harmless to all kinds of faith, after all.
But for all that, there is something very immediate about this Galileo, whom Prosky is able to make shine with the holy quest for truth while he goes about the practical business of stealing ideas, angling for grants, as it were, from local business interests, and putting his findings at the service of the powerful to use or destroy as they see fit and as he knows to be evil.
There are moments when the production transcends the play. Brecht's cynicism about the individual barely manages to cover his optimism about the masses, but here is a Galileo whose life seems, in sum, worthwhile, not only in spite of his personal failings, but regardless of whether his specific contributions did anything to make the world a better place.
But this is a time of disillusionment with technology. It will be interesting to see what "Galileo" suggests when Arena does it in 1995.