Saturday, September 17, 2011

Cleveland Play House: The Life of Galileo

(through October 9, the Allen Theater at PlayhouseSquare)

It's interesting that the Cleveland Play House is opening a new act in its vast history -- moving from the long time home at 8500 Euclid to PlayhouseSquare -- to waters more or less unknown, with a dramatization of the Life of Galileo Galilei, persecuted for challenging the church and common wisdom about the planets. Galileo is credited with improvements to the compass -- and it seems an improved compass is exactly what the Play House is gaining with their new facilities.

The evening started at a commercial photographer friend's studio for their Fine Art Show (gallery hours continue Saturday -- and 20% of the proceeds go to Kick-IT, a national charity... Some really awesome work) before we migrated further downtown. Parking was easy, though the walk to the theaters has changed; popping into the Allen lobby we quickly located the ticket desk, though it didn't seem to be operating at peak efficiency.

Walking into the theater as the first audience for the first show in the new Allen I had a good idea of the physical space but wasn't really sure what to expect from the experience. To say that the experience is a vast improvement from 8500 is an understatement of astronomical proportions. Even from the audience, each of 8500's spaces felt worn and rickety; it wasn't abnormal to hear odd bumps, clacks and bangs throughout a performance. These were nowhere to be heard in the Allen. The seats are actually padded.

Acoustically, the house is just live enough to avoid that disturbing anechoic chamber feeling of a completely dead space. Changes in scenery on, above, and under the stage were virtually silent (in the second half the orchestra pit cover is slightly lowered during the act. It took me a while before (a) I noticed it was moving and (b) I convinced myself it was actually lower and not an optical illusion). The only complaint I have is that lighting in the house during the show, namely aisle and step lighting, seems much brighter than necessary, and the glare is a bit distracting... I hope it will be dimmed in the future.

We were seated in the two seats in Box L on house left side -- as far left as one can get in the new Allen house. I was a bit concerned about sight lines, but was curious about how it would work out... and even these seats offered a good view of the vast majority of the stage [and I rather like the elevation of these seats, mid way between the orchestra floor and the balcony]

The play itself was an interesting look at Galileo's life and a handful of his closest followers and the challenges and persecution from the church...but the narrative leaves a few holes (I didn't get, for example, that Galileo's telescope improved on those commercially available previously, rather than copied, or that he spent the remainder of his life on house arrest). Digital projection is used -- with admirable restraint -- throughout to paint a variety of backdrops, time and place markers. Some of Galileo's theories and drawings are likewise illustrated, providing a captivating and flowing line of information that would be otherwise difficult, if not impossible to convey. At one point flaming caricatures of politicians make an appearance but otherwise it's very restrained.

Though this was the first preview performance (official opening comes Wednesday), the show was well and convincingly acted by a talented company that supported a suspension of disbelief, with just a few stumbled and quickly recovered lines. Though furnishings seemed to be of the general period, clothing and props were distinctly modern--leading to a discussion with Rachel during intermission about the history of "iron"ing clothes, and my total preoccupation during a scene with a walker-toting Cardinal trying to figure out when Rubber and welding came in to common use.

A handful of times, though, we leave the comfort of Galileo's life to brief song and dance numbers that are entertaining but still a little rough around the edges (I had trouble the speech intelligibility during these, however I had no issues understading dialogue during the balance of the show).

It seems that a bright star will be over the Play House's new home.


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