Russ Hunt's Reviews

The Life of Galileo
By Bertolt Brecht

Washington Shakespeare Company
20 February 1999

At the ticket place in the Old Post Office Complex we discovered there was a production of Brecht's Life of Galileo at the Washington Shakespeare Company, at the Clark Street Theatre over in Crystal City (which is in Virginia, on beyond the Pentagon and before the Washington National Airport). The woman at the ticket office had said it was a bit of a hike to the theatre, but she didn't even hint that it would turn out to be maybe the weirdest urban experience we've ever had.

How can I explain it? You come up from the subway among a bunch of modernistic towers, including a Holiday Inn and some other stuff you can't figure out -- maybe office towers, maybe apartments, who knows. But the weird thing is there are absolutely no human beings anywhere. Nobody moving. We'd been told to walk down Clark Street, but there is no "street" -- there are some winding drives around the buildings, but we can't see anything like a street. So we walk about a block down to the Holiday Inn, where it turns out there is one human, a doorman or something -- but he has no idea where Clark Street is. He does have a vague idea that if you walk around these buildings and go left, there's a theatre down there, back of a little motel, but he thinks it's at least a 20 minute walk. So we started out in fifth gear and walked for 20 minutes, around and among these buildings, across concrete plazas and crossing curvy two-lane roadways. We saw two or three moving cars the whole time, but the only actual person I laid eyes on crossed a road a couple of hundred yards ahead of us and disappeared into a carpark. Not one other human. Neutron bomb city is more like it.

Finally, I see a ratty "MOTEL" sign ahead, and as we cross into its parking lot -- kind of half-gravel, half leftover chunks of cracked asphalt -- and down behind it I see a blue sign on the front of what looks like an abandoned warehouse. It's lit up by a couple of light bulbs, and says "Clark Street Playhouse." There are a dozen or so cars abandoned (well, parked, but there were still no people around) in the gravel lot in front of it. Under the sign is a treated wood wheelchair ramp, fairly new, which leads up to a pair of steel doors, unmarked except for a cardboard sign saying "ENTRANCE." I wasn't sure it would open, but when I pushed it, it opened, and sure enough, there was a theatre -- a pretty fine little space, as it turned out -- built into the warehouse.

The production turned out to be pretty interesting, and pretty good. Not a blow-you-away one, but it's a really powerful play, and the production values were strong enough to let us get at it. The set was a circular playing space (with radial wood flooring, so it had a neat sort of focal point). To the left and back was a sort of open structure with a platform maybe eight feet above the stage level, and a suspended staircase curving down from it in two goes to a slightly elevated space, two steps up, maybe, which was to the left. Around the back of the circular area was a slightly raised walkway which was often used as a kind of delayed entrance or exit -- you could see people coming or going, but the convention was that players in the circle couldn't. The music and lighting were fine, too -- although they did a weird kind of Brechtian thing where occasionally a face -- there are a number of times when the script goes into narration, and often it happened then -- was lit by someone with a flashlight, sometimes a stagehand, but sometimes another character. I wasn't sure it worked, but it made sense in a Brecht production where the whole point is to keep reminding you this is artificial, people telling a story.

The main characters were all pretty solid, too. Brecht's Galileo is a wonderful character -- not just a brilliant, inquisitive scholar but just a bit of a rogue; the first scene involves him selling the Venetian nobles the telescope as his invention (the fruit of 17 years' labor, he says, though we know he's just had a description of it from someone who's arrived from Holland, where they're selling it on the streets as a curio). He does it to get enough money out of them to support his eating and drinking habits -- he's sort of a Falstaff. It's a heck of a role, and the guy who did it, Jim Zidar, was wonderfully powerful. The other really memorable character in the production was a dwarf, a woman named Suzanne Richard, who is probably 3'6" or so and who walked with crutches, and who was astounding. She played three or four parts, including the balladeer who introduces the whole thing, sings the tags between some of the scenes, and ends it all with the flashlight on her face.

A cast of 17 makes it pretty hard to pick other people out, but mostly they were pretty competent. As always in Brecht, though, the star was the ensemble and the production, and I thought he'd have liked this one.

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