Galileo Galilei, Tycho Brahe, and Johannes Kepler are three men who each made significant contributions to our understanding of the universe we live in. Today, we take our knowledge of the craters on the moon or the orbits of the planets for granted, but these things - like nearly everything else - had to be discovered. Star Messengers, now playing at LaMaMa E.T.C. Annex through December 16, has set itself out to chronicle these discoveries.
This new play, written and directed by Paul Zimet looks at the men and what they learned in an unusual way. Though Zimet has chornicled their major contributions with a fair amount of completeness and discretion, he has done much to bring out the art in their work as well.
One of the play's most fetching scenes involves Galileo teaching a small group of people the physics of music. His excplanation of the musical concepts of thirds, fourths, fifths, seconds, and more expands into a complex song full of intriguing, haunting harmonies that ends up being almost more a science lesson than a music lesson.
Zimet seems to have constructed the play itself almost as a symphony, with the music of Ellen Maddow, who inspired her work on the musical theory writings of Kepler and Galileo. Most of the music in Star Messengers has an eerie, celestial sound, composed of light, staccato notes and phrases that punctuate the proceedings like stars in the night sky. The band accompanying the show live includes an accordion, winds, cello, and even a harpsichord; period flavor is hardly lacking. Variety, though, is much more difficult to find, and the almost uninterrupted music grows wearying after the first couple of scenes.
But Zimet has done everything in his power to help maintain the audience's interest, and for the most part, he has done admirably. The lyrics and spoken passages, for the most part, define each of the characters well, and guide the audience through the twists and turns of the story. In fact, Zimet seems to take great joy in highlighting the elements of the story where truth is, in fact, frequently stranger than fiction.
His only real missteps occur in his low-comedy and low humor sequences featuring the three characters from Galileo's masterwork and in the dual trial scene of Galileo and Katherina Kepler that seems to go on endlessly. Nevertheless, Zimet has staged the show with wit, cleverness, and great variety; no two scenes look or work exactly the same, and one of the most exciting elements of the show is to see what he will come up with next.
Will Badgett and Court Dorsey are the show's most appealing performers, as Galileo and Brahe respectively, bringing warmth and humor to their scenes that could all too easily go lacking. David Greenspan, as Kepler, gives a more clinical, scientific performance than the others, resulting in a less engaging characterization. Galileo and Brahe, for all their eccentricities, seem real; Kepler seldom does.
The emotion may never be as interesting as the science in Star Messengers, but Zimet's work in making Kepler, Brahe, and Galileo sing is still a frequently clever, starry achievement.