People's Branch's latest has merits, but suffers from bad acoustics 

In partnering with Belmont University for the opening show of its 10th anniversary season, People's Branch Theatre derives benefits that don't usually exist at its home-base Belcourt Theatre: a modern legit-theater venue in which multimedia aspirations can be better realized; more ambitious costumes (June Kingsbury); more sophisticated lighting (Mitch Massaro); and a fascinatingly conceived and executed set. The latter, by Clayton Landiss, provides Ross Brooks' new production of Bertolt Brecht's Galileo with a compelling visual anchor, featuring a pair of huge, interlocking pocket-watch gears and large movable staircases that speak to both form and function in the mounting of the German master's epic drama.  

Yet there also exists one imposing roadblock to successful communication—the acoustics in Troutt Theater, which prove wholly distracting and annoying. The actors declaim dialogue that often disappears into an echoey muddle, sometimes making every third or fourth word unintelligible, which subsequently makes understanding this very challenging work by one of the world's most important playwrights an exercise in abject frustration. (In the spirit of Galileo himself, this critic experimented, watching Act 1 from the third row of the orchestra seats and Act 2 from the balcony. The acoustical problems persisted in both locations. Others in attendance expressed similar sentiments.)  

This is not to disparage director Brooks' conceptual zealotry, which infuses the 17th century with 20th century symbols, including fashion, the medium of radio, plus newsreel footage of Galileo himself, presented via an impressively stylized video screen that flies in and out of scenes to consistently intriguing effect. (Interestingly, the video screen segments didn't suffer from any audibility problems.) There's also an Act 2 interlude that sounds like rockabilly morphing into a big-band dance number, led with fulsome energy by Zack McCann, one of the 10 Belmont students who constitute the supporting cast. (Harry Connick Jr.'s music is featured prominently in the underscore, and it frankly grows a little tedious, especially when it's too loud.)  

Oh yes, the play: It holds a certain amount of intellectual and emotional interest, cueing us in to the titular astronomer/mathematician/physicist's spurious role in the invention of the telescope, and more importantly his run-in with church fathers who fear his discoveries about the orbital movement of Earth. Eventually a prisoner of papal inquisition, Galileo emerges as sacrificial lamb in the name of science, with the audience left to determine whether his recantation of his theories serves a heroic purpose or is merely the refuge of a pragmatist. 

Brian Webb Russell's lead portrayal is professional, and sufficiently wan given his character's trials. There are moments when he breaks out of the gloom, yet he and co-star Shawn Knight are, of necessity, pretty firmly locked into the production's noir-ish atmosphere and serious intent—though Knight, as Galileo's protégé, eventually delivers a particularly energetic speech near evening's end.

The contemporary fascination with enshrouding scenes in fog continues; it seems a gratuitous effect in this instant, but thankfully doesn't last long. The same cannot be said for the au courant gimmick of cross-gender casting: Though it sometimes works very well, in this instance the absence of clearly mature (and deep-voiced) male figures as Galileo's critics and censors—especially as regards the ever-paternalistic papacy—deflates potential dramatic and historical impact. Not to say the young and mostly female Belmonters don't approach their task with intelligence and vigor, because they do, and within their limitations they put the story across (when acoustics allow them to be understood).  

But the final irony of this mounting of Galileo may be found in Brooks' erudite program note, which points out Brecht's role as progenitor of Verfremdungseffekt, the so-called defamiliarization effect necessary to his goal of a didactic theater. Brooks has employed the tools of that trade with strategic righteousness, and the fact that we often can't understand the playwright's words certainly adds immeasurably—if unintentionally—to the proposed sense of estrangement. That some audience members were provoked to a standing ovation while others only politely applauded probably means mission accomplished. Certainly Brecht would've approved.

Email arts@nashvillescene.com.

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