Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Raleigh/Durham

Life of Galileo
PlayMakers Repertory Company
Review by Garrett Southerland

Ron Menzel
Photo by Huth Photo
"A man who doesn't know the truth is just an idiot, but a man who knows the truth and calls it a lie is a crook." These words might have been written today, but they are taken from Bertolt Brecht's play Life of Galileo, first produced in 1943 during Adolph Hitler's rise to power. Brecht redrafted the play twice, each time in response to new sociopolitical events. The third version was completed in 1955 in the wake of the Manhattan Project's introduction of the world to nuclear power. It is this third version that is on offer with fresh vitality and nuance by PlayMakers, running through March 17 at the Paul Green Theatre at the Joan H. Gillings Center for Dramatic Art on the campus of UNC.

The play takes some liberties with the life of the great astronomer and physicist Galileo Galilei (Ron Menzel), who is considered by many to be the father of modern science. But it tells the true story of how Galilei seized on the new technology of telescopes to make observations of the heavens which supported his theory of a heliocentric universe. This theory contradicted hundreds of years of geocentric thought and the teaching of the powerful Roman Catholic Church. Ultimately, Galileo must decide whether he will recant what he knows is true to save himself from torture and death at the hands of the Catholic Inquisition, or stick to his beliefs and lose his chance to continue looking for opportunities to advance the causes of science and reason.

This production is set in a hi-tech lab that reminded me of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway, which is designed to guard against the loss of seeds and plant life due to large-scale regional or catastrophic global crises. A worker/narrator comes across a computer file on Galileo, which opens before his and our eyes, extending his centuries-old story into the world we live in today—and beyond.

From the heliocentric controversy during Galileo's time, to Charles Darwin's theory of evolution some 200 years later, to the current debate about global warming and climate change, the duels between science and religion and truth against power continue to rage. And under the keen eye of director Vivienne Benesch, Brecht's play of religion versus reason resonates just as strongly today as it did in the 1940s. This is by far one of the most engaging and enthralling productions PlayMakers has delivered in recent memory, which is saying quite a bit, considering the high standards it sets.

The entire ensemble, many of whom are PlayMakers regulars, are quite strong. Tristan Parks (also playing multiple roles) is a standout as the Ballad Singer, that previously mentioned worker/narrator. Alex Givens and Brandon Haynes (both playing multiple rolls) make strong impressions as Andrea and Prince Cosimo, respectively; both roles require the men to play younger boys, and they convey youthful vitality and naiveté to great delight. A strong and versatile actor is required to take on the role of Galileo Galilei, and Ms. Benesch found him in Ron Menzel. His Galileo, part hipster, part eccentric, is easily identifiable today, and Menzel's enthralling performance, like Galileo's telescope, must be seen to be believed.

Scenic and projection design by Jim Findlay is, in this observer's opinion, one of the most creative seen on the Paul Green stage in recent memory. In addition to its seed-bank allusions, the set has the feel of a spacecraft, prompting comparisons to the 1972 cult sci-fi classic film Silent Running, which also focused on a solitary man up against impossible odds who decides to disobey authority to do what is ultimately right for humankind. Extending the performance space, seven discs hang above the stage and the audience: one large disc surrounded by six smaller ones, seeming to symbolize the sun, and the six planets known to exist during the time of Galileo. The smaller discs serve as projection screens, giving the audience glimpses of sky (at times blue with clouds and others a starry abyss) as well as other contextual information. Mr. Findlay's use of monitors and video-capture heightens the actors' performances, providing an almost cinematic mode of storytelling.

It all is quite striking, and with Kate McGee's lighting design the effect is only enhanced. Costume design by Grier Coleman provides subtle commentary on how the evolving crisis facing Galileo transforms him. He begins barely clothed but is gradually weighed down by more and more layers of drab clothing and scarves, until the passionate red T-shirt beneath is almost completely obscured.

The success of this production is rooted in the way it connects Galileo's struggle to the struggles we are living with today: the evolution of social structures, new understanding of gender identity, and the debate about global warming and climate change. One wonders how Brecht might rewrite Life of Galileo for the 21st century. It's clear, though, that he would hold fast to courage and hope that humankind ultimately will bend in the direction of truth.

Life of Galileo, through March 17, 2019, at PlayMakers Repertory Company, Paul Green Theatre, Joan H. Gillings Center for Dramatic Art, 150 Country Club Road, Chapel Hill NC. Tickets can be purchased online at or by phone at 919-962-7529.

Playwright: Bertolt Brecht
Director: Vivienne Benesch
Scenic and Projection Design: Jim Findlay
Costume Design: Grier Coleman
Lighting Design: Kate McGee
Sound Design and Composer: Justin Ellington
Choreographer: Tracy Bersley

Cast (In alphabetical order):
Federzoni: David Adamson
Ludovico/Monk: Geoffrey Culbertson
Senator/Philosopher/Little Monk: Rishan Dhamija
Curator/Philosopher/Cardinal Inquisitor/Frontier Guard: Ray Dooley
Senator/Mathematician/Monk/Bellarmine: Samuel Ray Gates
Andrea/Astronomer: Alex Givens
Senator/Prince Cosimo/Fat Prelate: Brandon Haynes
Guard: Ashlei Heffernan
Sagredo/Mathematician/Monk/Barberini/Clerk: Kathryn Hunter-Williams
Virginia/Astronomer: Sarah Elizabeth Keyes
Guard: Anna Longenecker
Galileo Galilei: Ron Menzel
Senator/Mathematician/Monk/Father Clavius/Mucius/Ballad Singer's Wife: Christine Mirzayan
Mrs. Sarti/Very Thin Monk/Official: Sarita Ocón
Ballad Singer/Very Old Cardinal/Vanni: Tristan Parks
Doge/Gaffone/Chamberlain/Old Cardinal's Attendant/Monk: Daniel P. Wilson