The Starry Messenger keeps young and old adrift in a most splendid orbit

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The Starry Messenger keeps young and old adrift in a most splendid orbit

The Starry Messenger
Through December 20 at 205 South Skinker Boulevard.
Tickets are $10 to $15.
Call 314-863-4999 or visit www.upstream­

All the elements of The Starry Messenger mark its origin as a play for younger audiences. It's about an hour in duration, has two characters engaged in constant dialogue that conveys a wealth of factual information about the life and work of Galileo Galilei, and it possesses an arrow-straight through-line that helps you retain the information — Rick Foster's play is clearly tailored for school presentations. Which is exactly what director Nicholas Tamarkin and Upstream Theater have been doing for the past week, presenting this quirky story to various school groups as an introduction to the theater, and as good science education.

So why open it up for three general public performances, the last of which is at 3 p.m. Saturday, December 20? Perhaps because when you have something this charming you wish to share it with your friends. It is the holiday season, after all.

Much of the charm radiates from Pamela Reckamp, who plays Galileo's daughter, Sister Maria Celeste. It falls to her to wake her father from his torpor — he's been dead for almost 400 years, obviously, and he's now slumped insensate in a wheelchair — because, as she notes, "When he died, he completely withdrew into himself." She's dead as well, naturally. But with the sort of logic that powers vivid dreams, Maria stands before us and implores the audience to rouse him. So we sing, "The Earth moves around the sun," and he awakes. Reckamp is cheerful and bright in her role as Galileo's "straight man," asking leading questions and guiding her father through the key points of his life. Maria's the sort of enthusiastic teacher you wish for your children.

John Bratkowski is the fiery Galileo. Delivered to the modern world to discover that many of his theories have been proven correct, he exults in his victories — but there are a few areas where he was incorrect, and oh, how that grates on him. Bratkowski portrays a man of science who thinks deliberately about the physics of the material world, but who stumbles over the basics of emotional interaction. Maria asks him about his legendary experiment on the Tower of Pisa, when he supposedly dropped a ten-pound weight and a one-pound weight off the top to time their descents, but Galileo cuts her off brusquely. "I was doing science, not street theater!" he barks, denouncing the myth but unaware of how rudely he's scolded her. He also can't recall Maria ever being in his study, a moment that brings an embarrassed cough from the great scientist, he who tracked the motion of the heavens but can't remember his daughter's age.

As in many parent/child relationships, these prickly moments aren't resolved. Galileo is dead and so is Maria. What lives are his ideas, and in walking the audience through them — to discover where he went wrong — we see the complex beauty of the man. He's not infallible, and he knows it, but when he believes he's correct, there's no gainsaying him, as his famous running battle with the Catholic Church proves. In his long struggle to publish his proof of a heliocentric universe, Galileo reveals himself as a believer not just in his church but in its duty to be a leader in the pursuit of knowledge. His defense of his quest to the Pope is poetic and bold: "The universe is also a book written by the Creator — a book of mathematics." Galileo's curiosity and his nimble mind drove him to assay the problems in the book, and his initial success bred arrogance, which resulted in his punishment by the church — imprisonment for life. In The Starry Messenger, Galileo's sentence doesn't breed bitterness: He still believes in the Creator, the Universe and himself, and he believes intellectual curiosity and spiritual belief are not contradictory pursuits. It's this unflagging belief in the possibilities of the Universe that sets The Starry Messenger in motion, and then keeps it in orbit. 

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