Renaissance Men

The arts and the sciences came together in the Renaissance in a way they never had before. Aristotle's limited universe, in which the sun and planets revolved around the Earth, was discarded in favor of Copernicus's more accurate assessment. And it was clearly seen by educated men and women that ideas--whether in the arts or the sciences--grow out of each other. As artist Robert Rauschenberg once said, "Ideas are not real estate." In other words, they must be shared.

But such noble sentiments aside, petty self-concern has always typified the life of genius--a historically inconvenient fact that provides the framework for Denver playwright Pat Gabridge's Reading the Mind of God. The play, now in a vigorous production by CityStage Ensemble, focuses on the stellar pair of sixteenth-century scientists whose symbiotic relationship led directly to Newtonian physics. And though it needs some fine tuning, its message about the ego's role in scientific discovery is as timeless as the stars, and its humanity is as palpable.

Gabridge tells the story of astronomer Tycho Brahe and mathematician Johannes Kepler, and he does so with a fair amount of historical accuracy. In the story, Brahe, a Catholic, invites Kepler, a Lutheran, to work with him in his laboratory, where he studies the heavens. Kepler has poor eyesight, which prevents him from making astronomical observations. But his singular mind is capable of something just as important--mathematical calculations built upon Brahe's uniquely accurate observations (made without a telescope, which in 1600 had not yet been invented).

Brahe, whose health deteriorates progressively through the play, thinks ideas--and even observations--are personal property. And he isn't anxious to share them, even with his colleague. His overweening ego makes him obnoxious, and he tries to reduce Kepler to the status of a servant or assistant, berating and teasing him, getting him drunk until he gets sick, even allowing him to be tossed in the pond day and night by the other assistants.

Kepler responds with a nervous breakdown, running away to Bavaria until he's forced to return when the Bavarian authorities banish all Lutherans under threat of death. Back at Brahe's, the two geniuses continue to spar as Brahe's health worsens. Brahe really was as rude and crude as the play makes him out to be, and playwright Gabridge even implies that he might have lived longer if he hadn't been so cantankerous. Afraid that Kepler will steal his life's work without giving him proper credit, Brahe threatens to burn his observations. But Kepler finally convinces him that all those who come after him will be beholden to his discoveries.

Brian Freeland gives a sensitive performance as the slightly feverish Kepler--always riding the edge of temperament as if he were in peril of being sliced in two. Douglas E. O'Brien is superb as the brash astronomer--magnanimous and brilliant one moment, small-minded and greedy the next. C. Kelly Douglas is charming and bright as Brahe's daughter, Elizabeth, Margaret Amateis Casart gives yet another intelligent performance as his wife, and Keithwayne Brock Johnson as Brahe's jester makes a dashing hero of foolishness--he's a fresh presence, as always.

It's a fine, hardworking cast, and Greg Ward, who has a knack for helping actors add layers to their characters, is just the right director for this budding work of art, which clearly has not yet fully blossomed. For instance, Gabridge ends the story with Brahe's death and his endowment to Kepler. If this were a movie, we'd see Kepler go on to prove his three laws of planetary motion based on Brahe's observations, and we'd hear about Newton's later discoveries based on Kepler's calculations. This is a play, however, and one of its flaws is that unless the audience knows the history of science, the grand moment when Brahe passes the torch to his intellectual "son" might not be fully appreciated.

The production has a few other problems: Some of the transitions from scene to scene are weak, redundancies in the script undermine the essential message of the play, and not all the characters seem fully developed. We are tantalized, for example, by Kepler's attentions to young Elizabeth Brahe--her warmth and intelligence are important to the story--but we're never shown just why Kepler thinks she's so bright.

Gabridge still has work to do here. But he has already accomplished something significant. Reading the Mind of God aptly illustrates how hubris interferes with progress and how great minds need each other. And it's entirely possible that after watching this play, a viewer might run home and pick up a college textbook to review what Kepler and Brahe contributed to the world of science. Now, there's a reason to go to the theater.

--Mason

Reading the Mind of God, through January 19 at the Theatre at Jack's, 1553 Platte Street, 433-8082.

 
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