dear galileo

Star bright: Claire Willett’s ‘Galileo’

The summer hit at CoHo takes a whack at the Big Questions. Also: "The Theory of Everything," National Theatre Live.

One of the things I like about Claire Willett’s new play Dear Galileo, the Playwrights West show that’s been a breakout summer hit at CoHo Theatre (it closes Saturday night), is the way it unabashedly reclaims the territory of big ideas for the theater.

We’ve not been living with a theater of big ideas these past few years: the standard modus operandi is to burrow deep and small, homing in on ruptures, trying to dig the pinworm out of the cultural corpus; or to create a loose verbal structure for acting as performance art; or just to riff, comically or ironically, on the innate absurdity of the contemporary condition. The days of Archibald MacLeish’s J.B. and Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, those brash and impertinent knockings-on-the-door of the infinite, seem far behind us, or tucked away safely on high school stages, although that might be changing: Portland Center Stage, the city’s biggest theater company, kicks off its newest season soon not with its usual big-scale musical but with a revival of Our Town.

Chris Porter and Kate Mura as Galileo and daughter. Photo: Steve Patterson

Porter and Mura as Galileo and daughter. Photo: Steve Patterson

Willett isn’t an ironic writer, and she’s not too interested in the theater of small, at least in subject matter. Dear Galileo embraces the mysteries of the universe, as Galileo himself did, back in the 1600s, when he landed in hot water for pointing out that observable phenomena did not square with certain aspects of received religious belief. That didn’t lead him to question spirituality, only to suggest that certain points of didacticism probably needed to be rethought. It also, inevitably, opened the door to a more expansive and questioning view of cosmic possibility that demanded reexamining even the definition of such concepts as “God.” Where does a desert tribal deity fit in an expanding universe of dwarf stars and antimatter and curved infinities and Big Bangs?

“Mathematics is the language in which God has created the universe,” the production’s program quotes Galileo, and that’s the territory Willett claims as her own: the convergences and clashes of science and religion as each tries to understand the shape and reason (if there is one) of the infinite. Must the two necessarily be at odds? Or can a trick of definition, a recalibration of the idea of religion as a process rather than a tablet of restrictions and rules, bring the two quests for understanding into something closer to harmony? What Willett’s attempting to pull off is a bit like getting C.S. Lewis and Samuel Beckett to pack a few sandwiches and go fishing together, although when you think about it, it’s maybe not such a cockamamie idea: Lewis and Beckett are angling in the same stream, even if their catch seems radically different.

In director Stephanie Mulligan’s well-acted and attractively staged premiere production, the eternal questions are got at via three interlinking stories: those of Galileo himself and his devoted if restive daughter (Chris Porter and Kate Mura, who spar with loving exasperation); of New York artist Cassie Willows (Nena Salazar) and her estranged father, Jasper (Gary Powell, the passionate science prof you wish you’d had in college), a celebrated astrophysicist at the Vatican Observatory in the Arizona desert, along with Jasper’s brilliant and emotionally messed up assistant, Gabriel (Nathan Dunkin); and small-town Texas creationist author and TV talking head Robert Snow (Walter Petryk), whose view of religion is as tough and tiny and nigh-unbreakable as a macadamia nut, and his eternally questioning young daughter Haley (Agatha Day Olson), whose eager questions tossed out across the centuries to Galileo give the play its title. Fathers and daughters have as much to do with the play’s emotional and narrative journey as god-the-fathers and the place of mere humans in the universe.

Willett revels in big speeches loaded with big questions, and the Dear Galileo audiences’ eager response to them suggests the skill with which many are constructed, the actors’ deftness of delivery, and perhaps an emerging eagerness by theatergoers to engage with issues bigger than the kitchen sink.

For all its attractions the play is long and sometimes feels as if it’s trying to stuff too much in. I’d need to spend some serious time looking over the script to decide for sure, but it strikes me that two interweaving stories might work better than three, and that the tale of extreme fundamentalist Robert Snow and his daughter might be the odd one out. The stories of the Willows and the Galileis seem to play off each other well: the pioneering astronomer and the contemporary astrophysicist, each trying to balance science and faith, and each thinking in terms far more expansive than the ordinary men and women of their times.

Snow, who clings fervently to the Bishop Ussher timeline of the universe (the good bishop, in his brilliantly wrongheaded journey through the Old Testament’s thicket of begats, determined in 1650 that Creation took place at about 6 p.m. on October 22, 4004 B.C.), and who twists the scientific record to place humans and dinosaurs on the planet at the same time in an effort to align geological reality with an extreme literalist interpretation of scripture, is hard to take seriously as a thinker. He’s simply not a credible match for Galileo and Willows: intellectually speaking, he’s a relic, although men like him have outsized political, educational, and pop-cultural influence. The Snow segment of Dear Galileo could be a case of the Don Juan in Hell conundrum: a fascinating fragment that’s related but doesn’t quite fit in with the mother ship of Man and Superman. Should it be inserted into the play, or left out, or kept separate and run in repertory?

Let that be. It’s a larger question, ultimately for Willett and no one else to decide. In the meantime, audiences have been enthusiastic, and that’s no accident. Neither, Willett might respond, is the universe, although she’d likely add that that’s part of the big question, isn’t it?

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"The Theory of Everything" director Rusty Newton Tennant with actors Samson Syharath, Kimo Camat, Larry Toda, Wynee Hu, Heath Hyun Houghton,Toni-Tabora-Roberts, Kat Templeton and Elaine Low

“The Theory of Everything” director Rusty Newton Tennant with actors Samson Syharath, Kimo Camat, Larry Toda, Wynee Hu, Heath Hyun Houghton,Toni-Tabora-Roberts, Kat Templeton and Elaine Low

Speaking of big ideas (or at least, big titles), Saturday afternoon is the final chance to catch The Theory of Everything, Prince Golmovilas’ expansive comedy about UFOs, Japan, and the Chapel of Love. Produced by Theatre Diaspora, an arm of Dmae Roberts’ MediaRites that produces theater featuring Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, it has its final of just two performances at 2 o’clock Saturday at Artists Repertory Theatre. Tickets are just 10 bucks; info here.

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And in case you’ve missed Third Rail Rep’s screenings of the National Theatre’s lauded film versions of live performances, or want to catch some of them again, Third Rail is giving an encore festival this weekend of favorites from the 2014-15 season. Showing Friday through Sunday at Imago Theatre, Third Rail’s new home base, will be Man and Superman, Treasure Island, Of Mice and Men, Skylight, A View from the Bridge, and John. Ticket and schedule information are here.

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Claire Willett’s moment in the sun

With her new play 'Dear Galileo' and novel 'The Rewind Files,' the Portland writer dares to get uglier, messier – and better

“When I first started writing plays, I felt very insecure about calling myself an artist,” says Claire Willett. After all, she reasoned, who was she to include herself in the same company as the directors, actors and other Portland theater artists she most respected? “I did that to myself for a long time.”

Now, with her own creative endeavors gaining respect and exposure. Willett doesn’t have much choice but to acknowledge herself as an artist.

Willett: writing is the center of her universe.

Willett: writing is the center of her universe.

Saturday night at CoHo Theater, Playwrights West presents the world premiere of Dear Galileo, a smart, moving examination of the fault lines between faith and science, past and present, fathers and daughters. The first of Willett’s plays to get a full production, it’s directed by Stephanie Mulligan and features such Portland stage stalwarts as Gary Powell, Kate Mura and Nathan Dunkin, plus newly transplanted talent Nina Salazar.

And before that show closes at the end of the month, Willett’s debut novel, The Rewind Files, is due out from Retrofit Publishing, a Los Angeles company specializing in serialized science-fiction e-books. As does Dear Galileo, the novel has intergenerational family drama at its heart, but surrounds it with an imaginative swirl of mystery and historical-fiction and time-travel tropes, weaving the Watergate scandal in with the retroactive prevention of World War III.

“I’d spent my whole career not having to finish things,” says Willett, who cut her playwriting teeth mostly through readings and workshop productions in the annual Fertile Ground festival. “Then my final draft of this play and my final draft of the novel were due on the same Friday.”

caf1ca_7874aa6aa06f419aa2ccbf77ad38c4fc.png_srz_p_300_250_75_22_0.50_1.20_0.00_png_srzWillett had been building up to that Friday for a long time. Growing up in Northeast Portland, part of a studious Catholic family, she came by her literary impulses early. “I wanted to be the kind of girl who kept a diary,” she recalls. “But I couldn’t not lie to it – I’d always embellish things.”

Her early writing mentor was Charles Evered, whose playwriting course Willett took during her time at Whitman College. But her post-college internship at Manhattan Theatre Club came in the development department, presaging a career on the administrative side of the arts. Since returning from New York to Portland, she’s worked at Artists Repertory Theatre, Oregon Ballet Theatre, Milepost 5 and Polaris Dance Theatre, eventually specializing in grant-writing.

Whip-smart and voluble, she’s a regular presence at theaters all over town, the sort who stays after shows for talkbacks, offering trenchant questions and comments. “She puts a lot of energy into fellow artists as well as arts supporters,” says Mead Hunter, an associate professor at the University of Portland and the unofficial dean of the city’s playwriting community.

Galileo Galilei (Chris Porter) and Celeste Galilei (Kate Mura) test Galileo’s theories. Photo: Steve Patterson

Galileo Galilei (Chris Porter) and Celeste Galilei (Kate
Mura) test Galileo’s theories. Photo: Steve Patterson

When her former Artists Rep colleague Trisha Mead founded the Fertile Ground festival as an open opportunity to showcase new work, Willett took the chance to start developing an artistic voice of her own, writing a new play for each year’s festival until 2015 — when her writing time was devoted instead to her novel.

Hunter was the first to lend his support to Dear Galileo, encouraging Willett to submit it to Artists Rep. There, Mulligan quickly took an interest and directed a staged reading for the 2012 Fertile Ground. The next year, the play was workshopped in the Hothouse New Play Development Series at California’s historic Pasadena Playhouse.

“Mead and Stephanie have been the people who have shaped my writing the most: pushing me when I needed pushing, and believing in me from the beginning,” Willett says.

“Claire’s always been a fascinating thinker and writer,” Hunter says. “In Dear Galileo, as in most of Claire’s plays, she plumbs the depths and tests the limits of what it means to be a sentient being on this wild planet. Her characters make connections across time and space in way that makes us ask ourselves, from our seats in the audience, where we place ourselves on the cosmic scale.”

After gaining membership in Playwrights West (“One night at an after-show party I lurched up to Matt Zrebski and Patrick Wohlmut and said, ‘What do I have to do to be in your cool-kid’s club?’”) and getting on the CoHo schedule, Willett decided to resolve the lingering issues in Dear Galileo.

Haley Snow (Agatha Olson), a girl with big questions in "Dear Galileo." Photo: Steve Patterson

Haley Snow (Agatha Olson), a girl with big questions in
“Dear Galileo.” Photo: Steve Patterson

The play follows three pairs of fathers and daughters – two contemporary and one historical – whose relationships revolve around matters of faith and science. But another relationship, a nascent romance between one of the daughters and her father’s troubled former assistant, wasn’t quite working.

“It was placeholder text in some way,” she says. “Rewriting to figure out where they end up instead was the first big change. I finally was willing to let it be uglier and messier – which is important. It’s really hard to write good drama if you’re pathologically avoiding confrontation.”

You’d hardly call it pathological, but Dear Galileo and The Rewind Files share a persistent psychological concern: How to come to terms with lives in the shadows of illustrious parents. The novel’s protagonist is Regina “Reggie” Bellows, a young 23rd-century woman working for the U.S. government agency in charge of time travel, whose parents both are legendary figures in the same field. One parent is dead and a mystery; the other is very much alive and intimidating.

Willett’s mother, Theresa Willett, who died in 2008 of ALS, was “always the much bigger personality,” a prominent activist and volunteer, serving on the boards of such organizations as Catholic Charities, Mt. Angel Abby, and Central Catholic High School. She says she didn’t really get to know her quiet father, Ken Willett, part of the team that launched the renowned tech company Mentor Graphics, until her mother’s death. And it wasn’t until after she’d finished writing the novel that Willett realized her sci-fi adventure yarn really was about her relationship with her parents.

It was supposed to be a book about Watergate, albeit with a sci-fi twist.

“Initially it was just going to be a girl and her mom and some wacky Watergate antics,” Willett says. “It evolved into this completely different thing.”

The end result is a sci-fi thriller in which Reggie and a few trusted accomplices jump back and forth through time to unravel the mystery behind the death of her father and to thwart a conspiracy that has altered the true course of history by causing a catastrophic war between the U.S. and China. The plotting is cleverly complex, almost Escher-like. The pacing is brisk, even across 462 pages. Best of all, the characters, especially the insecure but sharp-tongued Reggie, are witty and relatable.

“ I was trying to write the kind of book I like to read: I really like science fiction and adventure stories,” Willett says. “It’s very different from the plays I’ve written. I feel very protective about Dear Galileo, but with this I felt much freer, like, ‘I can just see where this goes and I don’t have to impress anyone.’

“Even if nobody buys this book except my dad, now I know that this is the kind of writing I want to do.”

Astrophyicist Jasper Willows (Gary Powell) discusses the mysteries of the heavens. Photo: Steve Patterson

Astrophyicist Jasper Willows (Gary Powell) discusses the
mysteries of the heavens. Photo: Steve Patterson

Willett says that if the book does well, Retrofit might be interested in bringing Reggie back for a sequel. Also, she’s unlikely to stop writing plays just when she gets one produced. And as for a bill-paying job, she still calls herself a freelance grants writer, keeping a foot in the business side of the arts world.

But now that she no longer has any compunction about calling herself an artist, her future is more open.

“Right now I don’t have a career plan anymore. Which is all right, because all I ever wanted was to be a writer.”

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Dear Galileo continues through August 29 at CoHo Theatre. Ticket and schedule information are here.

 

 

The cast of Teatro Milagro's "B'aktun 13"/Courtesy Miracle Theatre

Fertile Ground started sprouting this weekend, but I found myself reeling from the scorpion’s tail of a cold bug of some sort, which scuttled my careful plans (just to use three, maybe even four, different metaphors in a single sentence, a construction I blame on the bug.)

I managed to rally Saturday afternoon for Claire Willett’s “Dear Galileo,” running into organizer Nicole Lane in the process, and she said that the early reports were positive. By which she meant large crowds were showing up, and presumably, rioting audiences hadn’t seized any of the stages. If any audiences DO plan to seize the stage, please let me know in advance. I want to see that.

Last weekend I saw the opening of Teatro Milagro’s “B’aktun 13” by Danel Malan, which was technically part of Fertile Ground, and Friday night I saw Third Angle Ensemble’s “Hearing Voices,” which technically was NOT part of the festival, though it qualified, with its two world premieres. I knew things were pitting out for me during “Hearing Voices,” because I found myself concentrating on how to time my coughs to natural breaks in the musical action.

So, just to get our Fertile Ground coverage off to some kind of start, I’m going to write a little about each of these shows. Understand: I was taking some over-the-counter cold medication before I ventured forth. In fact, some of it’s rattling around my system right now. I’ll try to time my coughs to the paragraph breaks.

One more caveat: Some of the productions in this year’s Fertile Ground festival are full-scale, formal stagings. So, for example, both “The North Plan” at Portland Center Stage and “(I Am Still) The Duchess of Malfi,” which Bob Hicks wrote about last week, are world premieres and part of the festival. We’ll feel free to take a full run at those shows. But many (maybe most) Fertile Ground plays and dances are in a preliminary state and performed as readings. So, we’ll speak in more general terms about those — we know how much they can change as they make their way toward full productions.

Willett’s “Dear Galileo” was a staged reading with some very good actors peopling the cast, so the audience could get a pretty good idea of what it might be like in future incarnations. It starts with a little girl named Haley who writes letters to the Renaissance astronomer, mostly because her Creationist father has removed her from her Catholic school, where actual science is taught, and placed her with fundamentalists who probably don’t have much time for Galileo but save most of their ire for Darwin. But quickly it becomes apparent that this is just one of three different stories that Willett is going to tell, and it doesn’t take too long figure out that they are going to be linked somehow, even though one features Galileo himself and Haley is living in the present day.

Willett is up-to-date on her science — I bet she’ll change her script if the Hadron supercollider near Geneva actually locates the Higgs bosun, or “God particle,” which theoretically gives particles their mass. Look, I don’t understand that either, but I bet Willett does, and a lot of present-day and Renaissance astrophysics makes its way smoothly into her script, and it even provides a central metaphor, one of connection at the most basic sub-atomic levels.

At last summer’s JAW new play festival, a couple of plays had a science orientation, too, and now I’m thinking that the city may need a “science theater” to stage them all. “Dear Galileo” should be in its first season.

In a way, “B’aktun 13” is also a science play, except that the science is courtesy of the Mayans, who apparently predicted that 2012 (well, they didn’t think of it as 2012, they thought of it as B’aktun 13) would be year of chaos and rebirth on earth. I say apparently simply because I’m no expert in Mayan culture or the Mayan Long Count calendar, which is fascinating but complicated.

The Teatro Milagro production, which the company will tour and so is fairly simply staged, is a mixture of archaeology, myth and the present-day stories of three Hispanic young adults, each of whom is struggling to integrate their Mexican heritage with their North American home. Malan focuses on the Mayan part of it to emphasize the ideas of chaos and rebirth, but the play is a good reminder that a modern day Mexican or Guatemalan is connected to cultural practices that go back possibly 10,000 years or so.

I was taken by the energy and commitment of the cast — Tricia Castaneda-Gonzalez, Malan, Daniel Moreno and Ajai Terrazas-Tripathi — as they moved from the prosaic reality of Woodburn, Oregon, to the whirlwind of the climax of Mayan civilization, B’aktun 13.

Even under the influence of powerful decongesting and pain-relieving agents, I could go on at great length about “Hearing Voices,” the three-part program that Third Angle performed at Kaul Auditorium on Friday night. I won’t, but I could, so long count yourself lucky!

I’m a big fan of the poetic Dickman brothers, Matthew and Michael, and they contributed the long poem “Shadows” to the good graces of composer Nalin Silva, an old classmate of theirs from high school. Silva’s soundscape, which he executed with violinist Ron Blessinger (Third Angle’s artistic director), was mostly atmospheric and abstract, melancholy like the poem, though occasionally Blessinger tossed in a recognizable melody that seemed to fit a particular section of the poem. Maybe.

So the focus was on the words, which told autobiographical stories and speculated about life in these parts. I like how rich and gooey the language is, how physical and immediate. If “Shadows” was an oil painting painted by a local painter, it would be one by Henk Pander (who opened a show with Esther Podemski at the Oregon Jewish Museum last week, by the way) — so lush it can be a little scary. And the scary opens us up to ever-deeper descriptions and speculations about our fears and our obsessions, or at least those of the Dickmans.

Mostly, I wanted to read the poem, after they finished. And then I thought: Supertitles! We need supertitles for these Third Angle experiments in music and the word.

We got a decent-sized chunk of Stephen Andrew Taylor’s opera “Paradise Lost,” libretto by Marcia Johnson from a short novel by Ursula K. Le Guin, which DID have supertitles! So, yes, we could piece together Le Guin’s cool story about a 7-generation voyage between a failed Earth and a new planet. Six generations is a long time to hold things together among a few thousand humans aboard a spacecraft. Some pretty weird stuff might happen, stuff that threatens the mission, no matter how well Zero Generation planned things.

That’s a great premise for a piece of fiction and Taylor gives it voice and orchestration as an opera. I enjoyed the urgency of the music and its construction, though a full production and some reporting would be necessary for me to understand how it works exactly. Taylor teaches at the University of Illinois, and he brought the four singers in the concert with him, all of whom performed well. The orchestra was full of Third Angle regulars, so the music was in good hands.

The opener of the concert was Tom Johnson’s “Failing, A Very Difficult Piece for Solo String Bass,” played by Jason Schooler. It’s a delight, not so much because Johnson’s composition is THAT difficult to play, but because he asks the musician to speak as he plays, and speak normally, no matter how agitated or soothing the music becomes. And the conceit that it’s all about how the bassist fails to do this, either muffing the notes or the reading. And really, even if the bassist does both well enough to consider it a success, the bassist fails, because the piece is about “failing” not “succeeding.”

I know: Paradox. Actually, it reminded me of my Bob Dylan: “There’s no success like failure, and failure’s no success at all.” That one managed to trip me up most of sophomore year.