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Fern Siegel

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Stage Door: Galileo and Sesame Street Live's 1-2-3-Imagine!

Posted: 02/23/2012 9:26 pm

What strikes audiences immediately at the compelling CSC production of Brecht's Galileo is how modern it feels.

Galileo Galilei (F. Murray Abraham) is a famed mathematician and astronomer who uses his telescope to support heliocentrism, the theory that the Earth revolves around the Sun. His teachings are revolutionary -- and contradict the rigid orthodoxies of the Catholic Church. He posits a new age of scientific progress; the Vatican fears a threat to its established doctrines. It not only rejects his teachings (the cardinals refuse to peer into his telescope) but later force him, as part of the Inquisition, to recant.

They cannot conceive of a universe in which the Earth is suborned to the Sun. Institutional arrogance is pitted against scientific truths. As Galileo confronts the smugness of Cardinal Bellarmin (Steven Skybell), we witness the age-old war between enlightenment and dogma.

As Brecht observes, the fierce battle for intellectual ideals, be it scientific, political, or cultural, is endless. In 1947, when he wrote his play, he was under attack from the House Un-American Activities Committee. Today's polarizing political landscape, with attacks on established scientific theories, such as evolution and climate change, is a chilling reminder that Galileo's struggles mirror our own.

Director Brian Kulick has imbued Galileo with relevancy; the anguish of the old extinguishing new ideas is palpable. So is the personal cost to Galileo and his devoted daughter Virginia (Amanda Quaid). Nick Westrate, Andy Phelan, Robert Dorfman, Steven Rattazzi, and Jon Devries round out a strong cast. All do justice to Brecht's powerful play, which posits a complicated man, both visionary and all too human.

Abraham has a decided passion for his role, though he appears more arrogant than awestruck at the remarkable discoveries he makes. Still, his excitement over the moons of Jupiter -- indeed, his theories at large -- is fierce.

The CSC stage has been reimagined as what designer Adrianne Lobel calls a "break-the-fourth-wall Brechtian planetarium." Renaissance models of the solar system are projected against the wall. Pared to essentials, the set design is quietly beautiful. The story is smart and provocative, a parable for every generation.

For younger theatergoers, those who hyperventilate in the presence of Elmo, Big Bird, and Abby, Sesame Street Live's 1-2-3 Image! With Elmo & Friends at the Theater at Madison Square Garden is a delight. Elmo's entrance is greeted with squeals once reserved for Elvis. The Sesame Street gang has come together to encourage a creative agenda: the importance of imagination.

The 65-minute show takes its preschool audience on a cute, colorful adventure -- from foreign climes to adventures on the high seas. The two most artistic vignettes -- a jazzy octopus and DayGlo trip into the jungle -- were noteworthy because they didn't feature the Sesame Street crew. The focus, however, is on friendship and sharing wonderful moments. The songs are sweet, and by walking into the audience, Elmo and friends give the kids a genuine thrill.

One caveat: the merchandising push is intense. Given the pre-show Play Zone, the musical should run without an intermission, better suited for the under-5 set. The 15-minute break seems designed to sell Elmo balloons. The kids love them; the parents may be squealing at the price tag.

CSC (Classic Stage Company) 136 East 13th Street, New York, NY