Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Dear Galileo—CoHo Productions—NW Portland


This world premiere play is written by Claire Willett and directed by Stephanie Mulligan and co-produced by Playwrights West.  It is playing at their space at 2257 NW Raleigh St. through this month.  For more information, go to their site at www.cohoproductions.org

To paraphrase the Bard, we are such stuff as stars are made on and our little lives are connected to everyone and everything.  That, perhaps, is the point to this play.  The story covers a tremendous amount of philosophy, religious beliefs and scientific theory, as well as the angst of some individuals.  It is, I believe, too complicated to fit all this fodder into one 150 minute story but it does give it one hell of an effort.

I will try to condense this story into a few words but know, that in actual fact, it is pretty heady material.  The thread of the story, time-wise, is actually in the middle of three related but separate tales.  Gabriel (Nathan Dunkin) is an ex-priest/physicist who is attempting to build a super telescope with his idol, scientist extraordinaire, Jasper Willows (Gary Powell).  Problem is that Jasper has disappeared just weeks before a big meeting of introducing the telescope to the world leaders.  And, to add even more fuel to this imminent blaze, his estranged daughter, Cassie (Nena Salazar), now pregnant, has arrived for a visit.  Not only that, but they are both dealing with demons from the past that will hamper their progress, both in finding her father and in their relationship.

In a seemingly separate story, a child, Haley (Agatha Day Olson), has been getting a Catholic school upbringing because her father, Robert (Walter Petryk), is of that faith but is also a scientist and writer.  Haley seems to have some major questions and differences of opinion as to what she is being taught in school, which bases its teachings of creation on the Bible.  And in a third tale, catapulting back over 300 years, Galileo (Chris Porter) has come up with some very unpopular theories with the Church, in that his telescope reveals, among other things, that the earth is not the center of our universe, but the sun.  This puts Galileo in jeopardy with the Pope and only his daughter, Celeste (Kate Mura), has come to his aid.  He is also going blind and needs her help in finishing his work.

I will have to leave you with only these two paragraphs because, as I’ve said, the story is really so complex that it would be folly of me to try and elaborate any more on it, as it would probably only be more confusing for you.  But know that it really is quite a compelling tale and, like a massive jigsaw puzzle, it will come together by the end.  The play does needs a bit of editing, I believe, as some of the scenes seem a tad ponderous and repetitious at times.  Also, I think that Jasper’s speeches could be trimmed, not because Powell is not a good orator, but because they, too, become a bit pedantic.  Also some visual aids would help those scenes, since we are now, because of the Internet, a culture of constant visual stimuli.

I loved the floor design by Sarah Kindler, as it complimented the theme of the play that, by stepping off into this cosmos, one could become part of it.  Mulligan, always a fascinating director, has wisely kept the setting simple so as not to interfere with the complicated story.  This would not be an easy play to direct (or perform) because of the heady material but she and her cast do have a vision and it comes through as the story progresses.

The cast does well with some of them playing as many as three different characters.  Porter offers us what we envision Galileo might have looked and acted like.  He gives us a bit of a curmudgeon but one with a steely purpose and unrelenting spine to follow through with his beliefs.  Mura, another fine actor (as well as very adept with artistry behind the scenes in other productions), plays Celeste as a bit of a mirror-image of her father, being equally stubborn but vulnerable.  Powell is always a joy to watch onstage in whatever incarnations he presents.  Most of his scenes are relegated to speechifying but he has such a trained voice and demeanor that it becomes palpable to observe and heed.

Petryk does well in the conflicted part of the father, scientist and Christian, trying to balance his life with these seemingly differing roles.  Olson, as his daughter, does not have an easy task because, at her age, these are pretty complicated ideas to wrap her mind around.  But she seems to understand the conflicts and renders a believable performance.

Both Dunkin and Salazar are at their best in what seems to be the heart of the story.  They play very complicated characters that are neither black nor white but shades of gray, in other words, very human and relatable.  Dunkin is always worth watch in a production but this might be his best, as he keeps you guessing as to the path he will take and the secrets behind his mask.  Salazar, likewise, is fascinating to watch, as she becomes hard as nails at times then totally open and vulnerable.  Also an outstanding performance and they play well off each other.

I recommend this production but know the subject matter is very deep and the language realistic.  If you do choose to see it, please tell them Dennis sent you.

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