Arts & Events

Around & About Theater & Music: Notes on Two Productions--'Galileo' at Masquers Playhouse & mugwumpin's 'Great Big Also'--& Info on Marion Fay's Theater & Music Classes

By Ken Bullock
Friday March 29, 2013 - 06:46:00 PM


Around & About Theater & Music: Notes on Two Productions—'Galileo' at Masquers Playhouse & mugwumpin's 'Great Big Also'—& Info on Marion Fay's Theater & Music Classes 

—'The Life of Galileo' at Masquers Playhouse: " 'Nothing is more pleasant than to sit upon a sofa reading a novel' ... This remark suggests the degree of relaxation which a narrative work can give to its reader. If we imagine a person attending a dramatic spectacle we tend to visualize the opposite ... [Brecht] represents Galileo first and foremost as a great teacher. Galileo not only teaches the new physics, he also teaches it in a new way. The scientific experiment is, in his hands, no longer a conquest only of science but also of pedagogy. The main emphasis of the play is not on Galileo's recantation. Rather, the really epic process should be sought in the caption to the penultimate scene [Brecht often used placards with a synopsis of each scene on the stage]: '1633-42: As a prisoner of the Inquisition, Galileo continues his scientific work until his death. He succeeds in smuggling his principal works out of Italy.' " 

This from Brecht's friend, the critic Walter Benjamin, shortly after the first version of 'Galileo' became available in print in the late 1930s. (It wasn't produced until 1943, in Zurich. The first English-language production, in LA and NYC, Charles Laughton directed by Joseph Losey, was in 1947.) After half-joking how, in 'Galileo,' "playing a teacher is easier, of course, than playing a hero," Benjamin goes on about Brecht's desire to "make the thinking man, or indeed the wise man, into an actual dramatic hero—and it is from this point of view from which his theater may be defined as epic." 

In the show at the Masquers Playhouse, directed by Bruce Coughran, some of the best moments are exactly those that dwell on the theater of day-to-day life: young Andrea Sarti (a lit-up Campbell Zeigler, fourth grader from Walnut Creek) plays the very serious game, with Stanley Spenger's gently encouraging (and admonishing) Galileo, of learning a physics which overturns the ancient rules that Church and university adhere to. Or when Mathew Surrence as Sagredo, a most sincere friend and admirer of the pioneer scientist, who interrupts their conversation about revolutionary discoveries in astronomy to warn him about society's irrationality: "I smell burning flesh." 

Stan Spenger shows something of Galileo's sense of his own superiority—and vanity—and his impatience in telling the truth he's discovered. Not shown so much, only spoken of in the script, is his conviviality and need for "the pleasures of the flesh"—the man of science is an Epicurean, a sensualist, no martyr for the Truth. 

The cast tries to bring out their respective characters—in particular, Bill McClave as Galileo's lens grinder and Laura Domingo as Galileo's daughter. But everyone's hamstrung by trying to create a "normal" dramatic atmosphere, instead of a Brechtian (and Galilean!) sense of demonstration, "not so much developing action as uncovering conditions," as Benjamin put it, going on to say that Brecht's theater is "non-Aristotelian just as Riemann introduced a non-Euclidean geometry—only Riemann refused the axiom of parallels; Brecht refuses the Aristotelian catharsis, the purging of emotions through identification with the destiny that rules the hero's life." 

This kind of theater is one of gesture, of storytelling: "to make gestures quotable is the actor's most important achievement." Too much of 'Galileo' at the Masquers falls back on the old tricks of melodrama, which don't take with this sort of play. There's neither catharsis, nor enough illumination of the conditions of the historical process of how a man with questions, not answers, changes the way the whole world is perceived. 

—mugwumpin's 'The Great Big Also' at Z Space: "All man's miseries come from being unable to sit alone in a room." Pascal's wry assessment of the human condition is like the flip side of the coin to`` mugwumpin's most ambitious production to date, 'The Great Big Also,' just ended at Z Space. The audience is led by ushers—or docents?—into a partitioned tent that fills the theater, carefully dropping off a spectator here and there in its labryrinthine chambers, breaking up any group each one may've come with, making new groupings of starngers. 

It turns out the ushers are the cast—and the members of a cult, who sweetly, politely—and strangely—begin to fill us in on their "raison d'etat"—the Rift ... and the Shift ... to a new reality, another America, while we observe, in our various obstructed rooms-with-no-views—which, once adjusted, become more global—the motley crew who have been demonstrating their wares, their lives and themselves. 

Self-fulfilling prophecy or DOA? Or a love letter to the stranger forms of togetherness in America? Once again, mugwumpin's come up with the phenomenon, and made a show of it, not just about it. By turns amusing, irritating, engrossing and challenging, they—the cult and the performance company (Madeline H. D. Brown, Stephanie DeMott, Joseph Estlack, Natalie Greene, Susannah Martin, Michael Mohammed, Wiley Naman Strasser and Michelle Talgarow—not to mention director Christopher W. White and his valiant production crew)—have taken us from someplace we thought we knew, to someplace else ... both maybe exactly the same ... but is the Shift coming, or did we do that already? 

—Marion Fay's excellent, unusual theater and music classes will start up again the week of April 1. 

Theater class will have three sections to choose from: Mondays, 10 till noon or 1 till 3 and Thursdays 1-3. See shows at Berkeley Rep, ACT, the Aurora and other theaters with discount group tickets, participate in post-performance discussions, meet actors, directors, playwrights who will speak in class—plus a live performance in class ... Select a section, register the first day of class and bring $28 in a plain envelope, if you plan to attend 'The Arsonists' at the Aurora on April 14 at 7 p. m. 

Music class—and no background in music is necessary—will be Thursday mornings from 10 till noon, from April 4. Go to classical music events in the Bay Area, hear and meet composers, musicians and conductors from the Berkeley, Oakland and San Francisco Symphonies ... 

Classes for both Theater and Music at the Northbrae Community Center, 941 The Alameda, Berkeley (near the top of Solano Avenue and the tunnel). 10 week sessions for $75 (discount tickets for performances additional). 

For more information: