Tabard Theatre Company presents Inferno Theatre Company’s South Bay premiere of playwright and director Giulio Cesare Perrone’s fifth work, Galileo’s Daughters, at Theatre on the Square in San Jose. The Inferno Theatre Company, founded by Perrone, along with his contingent of fellow artists, is based in Oakland, CA, although it has no theatre it can call home. Instead, the Inferno contingent strives to bring the arts to the surrounding communities, viewing theatre as a collaborative process, crossing cultural boundaries, and bringing with it enrichment to all who partake, from all sides of the box. Interested in art, science, religion, and historical controversy, Perrone brings these together in this latest creation.
A rather cerebral play, Galileo’s Daughters is based on actual events in Galileo’s life. It chronicles his relationship with his daughters, Virginia (later, Sister Maria Celeste) and Livia (later, Sister Arcangela), and his inner conflict between his yearning to speak the truth through science, and his persecution by the church he loves. He cites that “man’s intelligence to understand science” is a tribute to God, and therefore should be encouraged, but he’s unable to convince church authorities to accept his position.
Culled from over 120 surviving letters from Celeste to her father, the play follows a parallel course of events. The “present” circa 1630-1635, set between Florence and Rome, is filled with Galileo’s visits with his daughters in the convent of San Matteo in Arceteri, and his audiences with the cardinals, trying to convince them to accept his work. The present is interspersed with flashbacks from the past, with Galileo teaching his daughters his understanding of science prior to surrendering them to a monastic life. In the present, Galileo admonishes his daughters to no longer “sing the truth” because of the danger born of resistance to his work.
Of his daughters, Celeste is inherently the more scientific of the two, avidly following their father’s work in science. Arcangela is more pious, and somewhat mystical, adhering more strictly to the laws of the Order of Saint Clare. Arcangela also suffers from ill health and bouts of melancholy. Through the course of the play, the two almost change places, Celeste striving for meaning, becoming more austere, hoping to spare their father undue suffering prior to Galileo’s house arrest.
In the current production, the set is rather busy, consisting of several stations, one with Galileo’s lectern, the others with low tables, intended to be accessed while sitting or kneeling on the floor. The addition of various science apparatus, used to demonstrate scientific principles central to Galileo’s teachings, are a nice touch. In the opening sequence, Galileo and his daughters introduce the pendulum, three of them actually, and Galileo comes back to this a little later in the play. Food is also prepared on stage, and an appealing herbal aroma permeates the theatre at one point. Various other props such as pillows, blankets, accoutrements of prayer (beads, crosses, etc.), books, letters, and so on, are used at key moments.
The course through the present is linear, though the insertion of various flashback sequences gives the play a more abstract, surreal feel, and is at times a bit difficult to follow. The staging and movement intensify this effect, showing the ensemble simultaneously pursuing their own activities on different parts of the stage, e.g. Galileo working out a science experiment, Celeste preparing food, and Arcangela arranging beads (actually chick peas) on the floor and kneeling on them in prayer. From an artistic perspective, this makes for an interesting stage picture. Other scenes are non-verbal, with music and abstract movement used to show despair, joy, excitement, or the passage of time. Were it not for the timeline detailed in the program, it would be difficult to gather the entirety of the story from the stage action and dialog alone.
Original music by Bruno Louchouarn adds to the experience, setting the tone and the mood, never overshadowing, but at times providing the backdrop to focus movement. Michael Palumbo’s lighting also increases the dramatic effect.
Michael McCamish (Galileo Galilei), Simone Bloch (Arcangela, Cardinal, man), and Valentina Emeri (Celeste, Cardinal, man) comprise the small, yet versatile, ensemble. Perrone makes an interesting directorial choice having the women play all of the auxiliary male roles, but this works well. Anne Victoria Banks Perrone’s costume design aides this illusion, and interestingly, all the changes are done on stage, but not in a disruptive way.
McCamish carries himself differently depending on whether he’s in the present, or retelling a past experience. At present, Galileo is beaten down and aging with failing health, but he is still a strong advocate of speaking the truth, even when he places himself at odds with the authorities. McCamish, a tall man, conveys this through his posture, voice affect, and intensity. In the flashback sequences, McCamish appears physically stronger, but he sometimes simplifies the level of the science a bit too much, the way a father might when teaching his very young children. Still, his comfort with Galileo’s science is convincing, as he explains the methodology employed to determine the period of the pendulum or the degree of acceleration of a rolling object.
Bloch and Emeri are interesting. Both trained in Europe, they bring a continental, old worldly flavor to the stage. They are convincing as Arcangela and Celeste, both passionate in their performances, at times playing a bit bigger than the intimate Tabard space would demand. The most intriguing elements in their performances are the transformations they make in smoothly transitioning between their “present day” depictions of their lives in the convent, to children learning at their father’s knee, to cardinals of the inquisition questioning Galileo and demanding changes in his works, to men carrying out a crucifixion.
Bloch and Emeri adopt very different characters, in speech and in affect, to convince us of who they are at any given time. Emeri is particularly energetic as the young Virginia, excitedly hanging on Galileo’s every word. Bloch’s character shift to become a cardinal of the inquisition steeply contrasts with her austerity as Arcangela. Her cardinal is prosperous, loves “his” food, and discourages any teachings that go counter to the church’s view of the earth as the center of the universe.
A very different and contemplative production, Galileo’s Daughters is worth seeing and continues, Thursdays – Sundays at Tabard’s Theatre on the Square in San Jose, through 8 May 2011. Note that the play is done without an intermission and has a runtime of approximately 80 minutes.
For further information on this production or to purchase tickets, see: http://www.tabardtheatre.org/.
For more information on the Inferno Theatre Company, see: http://infernotheatre.org/.
(Production Photo Credits: John Spicer)