Thursday, April 2, 2009

Two Men and a Set

Two Men of Florence, currently at the Huntington Theatre, has a stunning representational set. A rotating floor painted with an outline map of the world, a separately rotating small center, enormous surrounding walls filled with pillar candles, and a literally stellar backdrop. The curtain runs on a circular track that traces the outer edge of the map, and scene changes are generally accompanied by the curtain being drawn across our view and around to the back again to reveal our new location: an effective way to convey movement, distract the eye, and provide brief breaks from a very wordy script. The realistic and detailed costumes, furniture, and props are also beautiful; Francis O’Connor has done an incredible job as the designer, and I wish the theater offered tours of this set. Or home installations.

The play dramatizes Galileo’s rise to prominence and his relationship to the Catholic Church, and sweeps us up in Galileo’s excitement over his discoveries. The putatively central conflict of the play between Galileo’s work and Pope Urban VIII’s concern for the power of the church and the need for mystery is muted, however, by Galileo’s certainty that the world will always welcome explanation and reason. As a modern audience steeped in science and reason, we are already in Galileo’s pocket. Because Galileo never seems to grasp the basis of Urban’s concern, neither can we. Indeed, Galileo’s devotion to the Catholic Church allows us to avoid any sense that siding with Galileo is in some way renouncing faith, and casts Urban in a comically evil light.

The Inquisition, on the other hand, turns out to be downright friendly. Sure, they burn someone to start the play, and people express their concern when Galileo is summoned to the Inquisition, but the Inquisition was apparently run by concerned and reasonable men who are shocked, shocked to find themselves instruments of a vengeful Pope. And the Pope is not portrayed as wrong because he is suppressing reason or banning books or punishing faithful followers, but wrong primarily because he bans a book that he had previously granted license to publish.

Jay O. Sanders is compelling as the alternately navel-gazing and star-gazing Galileo who has a gift for explanation and a flair for making fools of people. Edward Herrmann, who I adored on Gilmore Girls as the loving and prickly grandfather weighed down by responsibilities and an overly developed sense of propriety, is solid as the loving and prickly Pope weighed down by responsibilities and an overly developed sense of propriety. The side characters are mostly one-dimensional foils or stereotyped comic relief, which is a terrible waste of some great local acting talent from the likes of Jeremiah Kissel and Molly Schreiber. Dermot Crowley gets the only decent supporting role as Urban’s sympathetic sidekick who is also betrayed at the end of the play, just in case we aren’t certain that the Pope is no longer a likeable person.

The flaws in the conceptualization of the play don’t interfere with it being an interesting and enjoyable 150 minutes of theater. The individual scenes flow well, the dialogue provides plenty to mull over, and the set, well, you can always just sit back and admire the set.


Rebecca Curtiss, Huntington Theatre Company said...

Thanks very much coming to "Two Men of Florence" and for posting about your experience. At the Huntington, we're all very proud of this production. I hope you'll come back to see our world premiere production of "The Miracle at Naples," now in previews at the Calderwood Pavilion at the BCA.

Michael said...

The Huntington is extremely aggressive about outreach, but the communication is always obnoxiously one-way. Blog comments like Rebecca's, a truly ceaseless stream of phone calls begging me to subscribe, but never a single response to e-mails or phone calls that I've placed. Their box office is fairly incompetent, their house management is erratic at best, and they're the only theater that has actually wound up with us in the emergency room the next day. (Yes, go to the theater often enough, and eventually everything happens.) We keep going to see shows they put on only because right now those are the shows that sound the most interesting in the local theaters. 12 years ago, the ART was putting on those shows and I went to every one. Now we go to the ART about once a year. I'm looking forward to the pendulum swinging back, or elsewhere, because the Huntington is definitely the local theater that I'd most love to never go to again. Maybe the new artistic director will go on an Ibsen kick.