Two Men of Florence
Edward Herrmann and Jay O. Sanders make their Huntington Theatre debuts as Urban and Galileo respectively. Arguably two of America's finest actors, their individual talents and the chemistry of their pairing under the accomplished direction of Edward Hall bring forth all of the power and passion contained in Goodwin's outstanding script. Employing the Roman Inquisition and The Thirty Years War as backdrop, Goodwin operates like a chess master maneuvering real life characters around an imaginary chess board populated by the likes of Aristotle, Nicholas Copernicus, Giordano Bruno, Johannes Kepler and assorted clerics and rulers. The central conflict lies in the ongoing debate between Aristotle's Church-sanctioned theory of a stationary Earth versus that of Copernicus and Galileo which holds that the Earth revolves around the sun. The playwright does not choose sides; rather he provides a balanced view and leaves it to audience members to make their own determination.
While the clash of religious and scientific ideologies is the big picture, Two Men of Florence is also a study of the personal evolution of Barberini and Galileo. Herrmann is an imposing presence who commands the stage with dignity and a natural authority. He inhabits his character with pomposity and regal carriage, growing more officious as he realizes his dream of becoming Pope, but clearly displaying self-doubt when he fears he disserved God. Galileo's journey is masterfully traversed by Sanders, from his palpable excitement during his early experiments, to his tender and protective relationship with his daughter, to his awe and pride at the acclaim his work receives across Europe. Sanders appears larger than life during those heady days, but gradually grows smaller and slower as Galileo ages and is stifled and accused of heresy by the Inquisition.
The leads are joined by an ensemble of quality actors, including Dermot Crowley (Monsignor Giovanni Ciampoli), Boston notables Jeremiah Kissel (Niccolini) and Diego Arciniegas (multiple roles) and Molly Schreiber as Galileo's daughter Maria Celeste. The only woman in the story, she looms large as her father's unwavering supporter and fervent believer in his goodness. Schreiber is equally adept at showing Maria's heartwarming strength and courage on Galileo's behalf and her heartrending sorrow and grief when she must burn his papers after he falls from grace. Giovanni is Barberini's loyal aide-de-camp and trusted advisor until getting caught in the middle of the tug of war between the Pope and Galileo. When he is banished from the Vatican, Crowley makes us feel his anguish and confusion.
The design qualities of this production are without par, owing to the synergy of set and costumes derived from the vision of one man, British designer Francis O'Connor. He has fashioned over 50 period costumes representative of the era, entirely constructed by the Huntington's acclaimed costume department. The scarlet robes of the Cardinal are in sharp contrast to the pure white-on-white of the Pope; the short, padded breeches of the foppish Grand Duke and his aide are appropriately flamboyant; and Galileo is dressed in knickers and a soiled apron until his success affords him a fine coat and hat. Attention is paid to every detail, from accessories such as crosses and rosaries, to stack heeled shoes with buckles, to the Pope's camauro, the Cardinal's zucchetti and the biretta of the priests.
O'Connor meets the challenge of multiple scene changes in a variety of ways, most effectively with a circular curtain center stage that is drawn or opened by cast members as they enter or exit, which also serves as a screen for projections of flames and cloud movements, and a central turntable to enhance motion and occasionally speed up the action. Galileo's workshop is sparingly furnished with his books, a workbench and instruments for his experiments, but the walls are floor-to-ceiling open framework, each compartment containing a lit candle. When he begins to look at the night sky through his telescope, the candles dim and the entire backdrop fills with shiny stars and a craggy full moon that is partially in shadow, transforming the theatre into a virtual planetarium. While the decor of the Study and Throne Room of Barberini is more opulent, inclusive of chandeliers and fine works of art, nothing is more magnificent. The mood-enhancing contributions of Lighting Designer Ben Ormerod and Sound Designer Matt McKenzie underscore O'Connor's intricate set, as does the original music by Simon Slater which accompanies the scene changes and some of the dramatic moments.
This is a high quality, large scale production of a dynamic and complicated play that tackles weighty issues. It is also filled with humanity and sprinkled with humor so that it does not get bogged down by the gravity of the ideology. In the final analysis, it is a play that has much to teach about faith, friendship, and two men of Florence.
Two Men of Florence, performances through April 5 at The Huntington Theatre's main stage, the Boston University Theatre, 264 Huntington Avenue, Boston, Massachusetts. Box Office 617-266-0800 or www.huntingtontheatre.org.
Directed by Edward Hall, Scenic and Costume Design by Francis O'Connor, Lighting Design by Ben Ormerod, Sound Design by Matt McKenzie, Composer Simon Slater, Production Stage Manager Gail P. Luna, Stage Manager Carola Morrone
The play was published in 1998 under the title The Hinge of the World and had its world premiere directed by Hall, associate director of London's National Theatre, at the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre in England in 2003.