Arts & Events

Theater Review: Galileo and His Daughter

By Ken Bullock
Tuesday September 07, 2010 - 07:29:00 AM

Swinging plumb lines as Poor Clares twirl in their white habits like celestial bodies ... Galileo studying the suddenly rough surface of the moon through his spy-glass: "This instrument shows us nothing but Truth!" ... Dancing a kind of planetary Ring-Around-The-Rosy, the great physicist and his daughters fall, laughing at their made-up nursery rhyme ... "Papa! What happened in Rome?"—"I had to make promises ... "

Three committed actors—Michael McCamish (whose engaging Twobird was staged by Maria Lexa's Sun & Moon Ensemble at historic South Berkeley Community Church a year and a half ago), Simone Bloch and Valentina Emeri (who both performed with Sun & Moon)—portray Galileo and his two daughters, who become sisters in the Order of Poor Ladies, in an unusual telling of the experimentalist's discoveries and censure by the Inquisition. Galileo's Daughters, written, directed and stage designed by Giulio Perrone, formerly associate artistic director of Dell'Arte International in Blue Lake, near Eureka (one of the finest American schools for performance), is now playing Thursday through Saturday evenings at 8, Sundays at 5 through September 19 at the Berkeley City Club, 2515 Durant. $12-$25 sliding scale. 648-4030; 

It's the inaugural show of Inferno Theatre, an auspicious one. Besides the unusual theatrical storytelling, the production values—Anne Victoria Banks' exceptional costumes, Bruno Louchouarn's wonderful music and sounds, and Patrick Hjduk's subtle lighting design—are unusually high. The timing of the piece, featuring the actors' stylized gestures, voices and attitudes, and the whole movement of the play through the borders of its historical plot, is exquisite, approaching that "condition of music" Walter Pater once said all the arts aspire to. 

Galileo's Daughters is no potboiler, nor sketch comedy strung out into a full-length play. Instead, it shows what can only be accomplished live, on stage, by a carefully rehearsed small ensemble with the accoutrements of scenic and aural design—a hundred and a quarter years of modern theatrical research and practice in one distinctive, unfolding style. 

It's all very low-key; the effects are subtle and cumulative. Some moments seem like a living tableau from Baroque painting. Others are playful and charming; still others fraught with the complications of family and vocational life caught up in great, inexorable events: the Black Plague, the Counter-Reformation and Inquisition. The great discoveries and inventions of the Renaissance come under scrutiny of political and religious authority, both of divided mind about the efficacy of "progress", as are the minds of the great discoverer himself and his loved ones. 

It's a unique, intimate spectacle, one to be savored.