'Galileo' Lives In A New Production

F. Murray Abraham stars in a new off-Broadway production of Bertolt Brecht's classic "Galileo." Brian Kulick, artistic director of the Classic Stage Company and the director of the play, discusses Galileo, (the scientist and the play) and tells why he thinks the themes in the work are still relevant today.

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IRA FLATOW, HOST:

This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. Up next, an old play that's even more relevant today. An off-Broadway production of the play "Galileo" - Bertolt Brecht - just opened here in New York. It stars F. Murray Abraham in the title role. Brecht wrote the play in 1938. That's more than 70 years ago. I saw the play this week. And I'm no theater critic, but the message and the theme of the play about a Renaissance-era astronomer written by a Cold War-era playwright, it feels like it could have been written last week.

History, as they say, has a way of repeating itself. Society is still grappling over the role of science and truth and scientists who challenge the status quo. You can swap out astronomer for climate scientist in the Galileo story, and you get the picture. And that's one of the reasons why my next guest chose to stage a new production of "Galileo." Brian Kulick joins me here in our studio. He's the artistic director of the Classic Stage Company and director of "Galileo." He's also associate professor at Columbia University School of the Arts. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

BRIAN KULICK: Oh, thank you. So nice to be here.

FLATOW: Thank you. Also with me is actor Robert Dorfman. He plays Cardinal Barberini and the pope in the play.

ROBERT DORFMAN: That's right. Good to be pope.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: Nice Jewish boy like you, as you said at the top...

DORFMAN: (Unintelligible).

FLATOW: ...getting to play the pope. That must have been interesting for you.

DORFMAN: Fabulous, really.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: Well, we'll talk - we'll get to - let me ask - Brian, let me ask you: Is this - when you decided to stage the play, was the political climate about science about the same as it was? And was that one of the reasons why you decided on...

KULICK: Well, I've been very curious about this issue of truth. And it was interesting to hear Mr. Mann talk about truth versus fact and these sorts of issues. But one of the questions for us was, you know, how does the truth and an inconvenient truth, like the sun revolving around - the Earth revolving around the sun or the inconvenient truth of global warming, how does that truth move through the world? And so I was curious because Galileo has one of those great extraordinary moments where he has a very inconvenient truth to tell: How does it get told? How does it get stopped? What do we have to do?

One of the characters in the play says don't you think the truth even if it is the truth would get by without us. And Galileo says no, no, no. Only - as much truth as we push through gets through. And so for me today, one of the big questions is global warming and how do you keep pushing that truth along? So that was one of...

DORFMAN: Yeah.

KULICK: ...the reasons I started to investigate the play.

FLATOW: Robert, how much did you have to study about - you played the cardinal and the pope and a lot of other parts in that play.

DORFMAN: That's right.

FLATOW: Everybody played a bunch of parts in that play.

DORFMAN: Well, you want to study the play, and you want to study the subject. A few years ago, I did a play by a prolific young playwright Itamar Moses called "Outrage," where I actually played Bertolt Brecht writing this play.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

DORFMAN: So I did a lot of research on Brecht himself in those days (unintelligible) all that reading. So this time, I had remnants of that knowledge. I really studied the period and the cardinal, the pope himself.

FLATOW: What's interesting about Brecht writing it was his words are so - he himself must have really studied scientific method because the wording he uses shows he really did know what he was talking about.

DORFMAN: Yeah. I mean to my ear, my unscientific ear...

FLATOW: Yeah.

DORFMAN: ...it certainly seems that way. But I think he was probably talking as much about his relationship to the science of his day as a parallel universe to Galileo's. I mean, the atomic bomb was upon us.

FLATOW: Tell us a bit about - the set is fantastic. The set is teetering around, and there are these wonderful planets that hang down from the ceiling.

KULICK: Well, we're very fortunate to have Adrianne Lobel, who's an extraordinary designer, probably best known for her work in opera with Peter Sellars - "Nixon in China," projects like that and also "Doctor Atomic" about Oppenheimer.

FLATOW: "Doctor Atomic."

KULICK: And what - when Adrianne and I got together and she sat in the space, she said to me - the first thing she said do you remember when we, you know, being in, like, third or fourth grade and everything stopped in the classroom and everyone made a solar system out of paper mache. And she said I want to do that at CSC. I want to turn your theatre into a solar system. And she showed me the next day these sort of large orbs that she wanted to make and suspend and have rotate and move about in the space.

And it was such a beautiful and such a simple elegant idea to sort of hang these massive spheres that could then be used as Galileo was talking. It just seemed too - it just felt like it evoked the right spirit of the piece.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And it's a very intimate play, Robert, and the actors move around. They get very close to the audience.

DORFMAN: That's right. It's like the Milky Way, you know? The audience seems sort of like a foggy lit mass.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

DORFMAN: And every once in a while a face pops out like a star and tells you how you're doing.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: Are you aware? You're obviously aware.

DORFMAN: Oh, yes. Yes. Because the light spills. It's a three-sided theater. It's a beautiful space to play classic stage. So the audiences are very - the audience members are very much a part of it.

FLATOW: Yeah. And as Mr. Abraham said that night when he - during a talkback, he said every audience has been different.

DORFMAN: Yes.

FLATOW: And you're almost afraid to laugh at the - you know, there's a joke line there.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: But the topic is so serious.

DORFMAN: That's right. And thoughtful.

FLATOW: And thoughtful. You know, it's purposely, I imagine, (unintelligible) sort of break the mood a little bit, right?

DORFMAN: Mm-hmm. Yeah.

FLATOW: But you're almost afraid to laugh at the joke line.

KULICK: That's interesting. Well, Brecht, you know, was a big believer in not only getting a message across but getting it across in an entertaining, engaging fashion. So, you know, he'll do anything to get a point made. And one of the best ways to make a point is through a joke, and so there are quite a good ones in the piece.

FLATOW: And are you aware when the joke goes flat, when this audience doesn't say a thing when they should be laughing?

DORFMAN: In a word, yes.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

KULICK: You know, the interesting thing is you never know what an audience response is until the very end. And sometimes we "The Cherry Orchard" just recently - a wonderful actor, Alvin Epstein, said one night was so quiet. There's not a laugh to be had. He said he came backstage. He said, what a nice people (unintelligible). They didn't have time to get an audience, so they painted an audience.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

KULICK: So we would at least think that there was somebody there.

FLATOW: We have some on our SciArts site at sciencefriday.com - go to our Science Art. We have a whole site dedicated. We have some pictures of the stage on there that people can see the set. We were doing a little research and Googling around, and there was a Yahoo post. It must have been written by a student working on a term paper because it said: Help, is Galileo a hero or not?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: Is he a hero or is he not a hero? Because that's what the play is all about, right?

KULICK: Exactly. Yeah. Right.

DORFMAN: The retelling of the story is pretty heroic, but he himself would say he is not a hero.

FLATOW: Yeah, he did say that.

KULICK: He's a great anti-hero...

FLATOW: And in the end, where his student tried to resurrect him as a hero, he said no.

DORFMAN: That's right.

FLATOW: He was very vehement about I am not a hero. And this play was translated by...

DORFMAN: Charles Laughton.

FLATOW: Charles Laughton.

DORFMAN: That's right.

FLATOW: The famous British actor.

DORFMAN: That's right. He was the original translator working in concert with Bertolt Brecht himself in L.A., where the play was written.

KULICK: And Brecht and Laughton had met, and he'd mentioned "Galileo" as a subject, and Laughton became very intrigued, and that's what sort of started that collaboration.

FLATOW: Yeah. Were there alternative endings to the play?

KULICK: There are. There are. This is the most rewritten of Brecht's plays, and there are several endings. The one we are using is the 1947 American ending. There is 1950 East German Berliner Ensemble ending, which is a little bit more upbeat, I think. But I think Brecht said sometimes you have to say no so loudly that the audience will scream back yes. And so his 1947 version is a pretty strong no as a provocation to an audience.

DORFMAN: Yeah. I often think because he got out during the fascist regime that he felt a little guilt, and he became a little more forgiving of those who were implicated.

FLATOW: Talking with Brian Kulick, who is here in the studio with us. He's artistic director of the Classic Stage Company and their - and director of "Galileo," which is in New York now. And also actor Robert Dorfman, who plays Cardinal Barberini and the pope in the play. How long is it going to be running, Bob?

DORFMAN: Two more weeks, until March 18.

FLATOW: March 18, and these things are too short, you know?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: As I say, we do a lot of the science and the arts theater, and we find out they're running two weeks, three weeks, a month or something like that, and then - and because Brecht is not staged very much in this country.

DORFMAN: Not enough. Not enough. And the interesting thing is, I think, a combination of Murray or - and also the play, but we sold out before the reviews even came out.

FLATOW: No kidding. How is that, as an actor, when you tackle a play like this that's been done so many times, you expect a certain amount of criticism and interpretation? It's not like this one. It's not like that one.

DORFMAN: That's a great question. I think everybody has a very strong opinion about Brecht and how Brecht should be played. But I think one of the important things about Brecht is he always said about his theater that he called it - we call it Brechtian theory, and he liked that as opposed to - there's another method of acting, which is called Stanislavski method. The method seems to suggest that if you follow this recipe, things will - your acting will come out just right.

Brecht was a little allergic to the idea of methodology and was more interested in the idea of just certain theories and what they would provoke and that as a theory it's going to evolve. It's going to grow. It's going to change over time. And so what Brecht might have needed in the '40s, which was an idea of less emotion, coming from a world which might too emotionalized, maybe the problem today is there isn't enough emotion in the argument.

FLATOW: Right. Let's go to the phones. Billy in Brooklyn. Hi, Billy.

BILLY: Hi. How's it going?

FLATOW: Hi there. Go ahead.

BILLY: I just had a quick question on how you came up with this production when I feel like the public is kind of disinterested in space and the cosmos, especially with the death of NASA and such. I was wondering if you could speak on that.

KULICK: Oh, sure. No. I mean, you know, for me, this idea of a major figure like Galileo who was able to communicate a very difficult idea, an idea that didn't want to be consumed or absorbed at that period of time, was fascinating to me. And one of the questions that I had going in was, who are the Galileos today? Who are the Galileos now who can help us with all of these facts and help us find the language to continue to keep moving us forward? Because I agree with you. I do feel that we're sort of stuck in a sort of ideological gridlock, and how can science and how can the language of science be mobilized in such a way to help us move forward?

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Of course, whenever you do something about science, you do something where you'd like to get a lot of attention, you need to find somebody who have star power and who'll bring the audience in. And before I go on, let me just remind everybody that this is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. How did - did you have to convince F. Murray Abraham a lot to come and do this play?

KULICK: You know, no. That was one of the wonderful things is that we did - Robert and I and a couple of other actors got together with Murray, and we read it, and we finished it. And he said, let's do it, you know. It was that simple. It's a great role for him. It fits him like a glove.

DORFMAN: Yeah.

FLATOW: Yeah. What's it like working with him?

DORFMAN: He's a very skillful, talented actor on stage. He's always in the moment. He's unpredictable. And offstage he's a very generous and good man, a sweet man. He's tough, and he's - it's been great.

KULICK: Yeah. He's one of, I think, you know, he's one of the last the Mohicans. He's this rare breed of actor who is completely and totally emotionally committed from a moment-to-moment basis and at the same time has tremendous technical skill that could go toe-to-toe with any English actor, you know. So it's this extraordinary combination of these - of intuition and technique, you know, joined in this man.

DORFMAN: He's particularly suited to this role. It's hard to know where Murray ends and Galileo begins.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: And what was the toughest part for you in getting into this role?

DORFMAN: Well, like you say, I'm a good Jewish boy from Brooklyn, by the way, bar mitzvahed, and I'm asked to play the pope? And...

KULICK: I think all religious figures in this are played by Jewish actors.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

DORFMAN: As it should be. You know, and to see the world through that prism of, you know, the debate between religion and science has been going on and continues for a millennium. But there's legitimate points of view from both sides and finding the pope's point of view in this particular case, because he was a fan of Galileo's but he had to come down against him.

FLATOW: Yeah. It's interesting, very interesting scene where you're donning the pope's garb and slowly, slowly as you don the garb, you're going from more of a liberal to a more conservative viewpoint in a matter of moments.

DORFMAN: Yeah. Pope Urban was a great egoist and a prolific spender, and he believed in nepotism, but he was also liberal. He believed - he wanted to believe and support Galileo's findings, but there was an awful lot of pressure from the outside, the more conservative base, if you will, to hold the reins on Galileo.

KULICK: And the other interesting thing, which doesn't get developed in the play, is how deeply religious Galileo was, that even though he was putting forth these ideas, he still deeply believed. It was only under his breath during the Inquisition when they got to the point where they wanted him to recant, he sort of said under his breath, and yet it moves.

FLATOW: I was expecting that to happen in the play - but it doesn't. You don't get to that part.

KULICK: Yeah, Brecht is very wily in the second half of the play. I always feel like the play - he starts it almost in a way to get an MGM movie, you know? Here's this guy. He's exiled. He's in Hollywood. He's working with Laughton. This will be his chance to, you know, get Louis B. Mayer.

DORFMAN: The pitch. It's the pitch.

KULICK: Yeah. And the first act almost functions like a great MGM biopic. But Brecht can't help being Brecht. So as he writes the second half, he starts to just play with the audience. So these scenes that you think you should see, like the great trial scene, you don't see. You see his workers waiting for - to hear the news. And so he keeps shifting the point of view to show you from a 360-degree vision of who Galileo is from people like as high as the pope to a street vendor on a corner. And so he subverts himself. He subverts the piece in that respect.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And then there's a dance in the play. Was that original?

KULICK: There is an infamous, famous musical number, which, I think, over the course of the productions, several choreographers have been fired, famous choreographers.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

KULICK: It's notorious. It's one of the hardest sequences to make work.

FLATOW: Well, it worked in this play. I highly recommend it if you've got - it's on for another few weeks, so if you're in New York area, go to Classic Stage Company. You can go to our website at sciencefriday.com. You can see some scenes, a couple of scene from there. And it's rare to see this play produced, and it's done so very well by you folks.

KULICK: Thank you.

FLATOW: Congratulations. Brian Kulick is the artistic director of the Classic Stage Company and the director of "Galileo." Robert Dorfman plays Cardinal Barberini and the pope in the play. And it's a great play. Thanks for coming in today.

KULICK: Thank you so much.

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