Ethnic Theater - Jewish
Rubin Museum, Manhattan
“Chilling,” “provocative,” “obscure,” “remote” are the adjectives which come to mind in reviewing the recent off-Broadway concert piece titled “Falling Bodies.” Writer/director Jonathan Levi, composer Bruce Saylor, and musical director Gil Morgenstern have combined music, dialogue, ideas, performance to create a unique piece. Two actors and three musicians (violin, flute, percussive instruments) interact, confront and play with observations and memories, as they move into a fantasy world.
It is a strange world indeed. The piece has to do with an imaginary meeting between the 17th century astronomer Galileo Galilei and the 20th century writer Primo Levi--two Italians, each of whom, in his separate lifetime, experienced a reign of terror. Galileo ran afoul of the Inquisition for insisting that the earth revolved around the sun, and Levi was punished simply because he was a Jew. Galileo, swallowing his true beliefs, would recant and survive. Levi, whatever his beliefs, would be shipped off to Auschwitz.
It was in a Roman café that Jonathan Levi and Gil Morgenstern, over glasses of wine, began to think what it would be like if these giants, seekers of truth and victims of tyranny, were to meet. Out of this initial meeting came “Falling Bodies.”
An intriguing idea, but does “Falling Bodies” work as a theater piece? Saylor’s music is often jolting, striking, at times melodic, but at other times tiresome or remote. The same is true of the story. Yet the gist comes through, as Levi and Galileo banter and carry out experiments from the Tower of Pisa (as Galileo himself once did). Each holds a heavy cannonball of a different size. Dropped from the tower, it will prove Galileo’s theory that bodies of different weights drop at the same speed. In their exchanges, they also question survival and the price it exacts. “…forced to choose between the truth and survival,” Levi asks Galileo, “how would you do it?” “I can’t remember,” Galileo hedges. “I’m not sure I ever met the truth.”
But though they share their observations with the audience and playfully chat with the musical instruments, they maintain distance. Given the real-life dramas of these two historical figures, the piece itself, written differently, could have engendered more emotional impact. Too often “Falling Bodies” is so far out into space that it leaves the audience behind. The piece becomes too detached, too—dare we say it—precious.
Yet the production itself (under Levi’s direction) is rendered with a high degree of professionalism. Kathleen McElfresh plays Primo Levi, and though we wonder why a woman is chosen for the role, she brings a charmingly ironic quality to her reading. And the excellent Bill Camp humanizes Galileo, much as he can, given the lines. The musicians, for their part (Gil Morgenstern on the violin, flautist Lauren Weiss, and Yousif Sheronick as percussionist) also give impressive performances.
“Falling Bodies,” whatever its disappointments, is surely provocative, sending one back to the books and to the Internet in search of Galileo and Primo Levi. Having played one night at the Rubin Museum in Manhattan, “Falling Bodies” can be seen June 29 at An Appalachian Summer Festival in Boone, North Carolina, and its presenter, The Nine Circles Chamber Theatre, is now seeking other possible venues. Watch for it.
-- Irene Backalenick
Jan. 12, 2009