I’ve Gone to Italy to Find Myself in History
There is a long literary history of contemporary women heading off to Italy in search of something that will make their lives more meaningful. This strikes me as odd because Italian culture is not what I think of as feminist in any way, and the culture has a kind of careening chaos at its edges, except that Italy has been going on so long there is an existential tolerance, a kind of patience for it all to work out in the end.
Which is what the world premiere of Galileo’s Daughter by Jessica Dickey now on view at Remy Bumppo at Theatre Wit does: work out in the end. The Writer, played by core ensemble member Linda Gillum, has gone to Italy on a grant to write a play about the letters of Galileo's illegitimate daughter Maria Celeste played by Chicago newcomer Emily Bosco. Galileo is proposing that the Earth rotates around the sun, a theory considered blasphemous. In order to protect his daughter from the Inquisition he might face, he has her enter a convent where her brilliant mind is not necessarily appreciated until she puts it to use in service.
The Writer bumbles about Florence trying to access the letters and putting off signing her divorce papers until reading the actual letters. After reading how Maria Celeste made the best of awful circumstances, she is inspired to a kind of resolution. There is a surrealistic flexing of time in this plot and the ending brings us awkwardly to a pseudo spiritual conclusion as Maria Celeste dies of dysentery at 33.
Director Marti Lyons steers this play and its talented cast on an even keel which allows us to suspend belief, smooth over the rough spots and accept the time traveling. Scenic designer Yeaji Kim deserves accolades for creating a suitably Tuscan set that morphs into the cafe and hotel and monastery in the way that Italy layers the now and the past on top of itself like a pastry. However the real star of this show is the chameleon Chiké Johnson who plays Galileo as well as the evil Friar at the monastery who tries to break Maria’s intellect, the drunk in the streets of Florence who accosts the writer, the hotel desk clerk, the unhelpful bureaucrat at the library and the very helpful albeit tired librarian who finally gets her the manuscript. Like Anna Deavere Smith, Johnson conjures completely different characters in an instant like a magic trick with voice and body and gesture. Johnson fills the play with a village of distinct and memorable personalities and he is a joy to watch, as he supports the two female leads.
The play left me having all kinds of questions about the patriarchy, and the tragedy of a woman condemned to a poor convent because she was born out of wedlock, and the waste of her probably prodigious mind, but those are questions for another play.
Galileo’s Daughter is playing Thursdays through Sundays at Theatre Wit, 1229 West Belmont in Chicago until May 14th. Tickets and information on these and special matinees and adaptive performances are at www.RemyBumppo.org
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