The Great Galvani
nytheatre.com review by David Vining
August 18, 2010
The Great Galvani is a well researched and charismatically presented monologue invoking a bygone era and a briefly popular entertainment known as the dime museum. It is presented by The Magpies, a Chicago-based company that specializes, according to the program notes, in just such well researched monologues. Their comfort with this potentially staid Hal Holbrookesque (no offense to the great man) genre is evident and the result is funny and touching with a down-in-the-heels aesthetic.
The "great" Galvani of the title is not, in fact, the Luigi Galvani that we meet and hear from, but his father. Papa Galvani was a real historical figure—an 18th century physicist who discovered some of the rudiments of bioelectricity and would later be named by Mary Shelley as one of her inspirations for Frankenstein. This relationship between the two Galvanis shapes the play to a large degree and provides both laughs and poignancy. Our hero, Galvani the lesser, lives in the shadow of his father—a fate he says was sealed the day Luigi senior deprived him of even his own name. Indeed, he too see his father as sort of a monster.
From the opening moment of his performance, H.B. Ward commands the stage with manic-depressive energy that remains dangerous and unpredictable even as he woos the crowd with his cleverness and self-deprecating style. The script is full of subtle plays on words and hilarious malapropisms that enhance the impresario vibe that Ward runs with. He works the crowd like a carnival barker. It is hard to tell where the written lines end and Ward's riffs begin, but wherever they came from the little niggling jokes are plentiful and funny, especially early on.
That being said, there are some rough edges, and I feel as if I did not see Ward at his best. There was a point during the performance at which he seemed to lose his way. There was some circling around and muttering which felt like a desperate effort to remember what was next. Although he found his feet again and valiantly soldiered on, the magic was somewhat lessened after this hiccup and I wonder if perhaps Ward did indeed skip some of the text. With the spell broken, the script can not hold its own. It lacks any real story development. It is really just a collection of well written riffs.
At no more than 40 minutes The Great Galvani isn't quite great enough for me. For all the well worded showmanship, there isn't enough show. The Great Galvani has many merits but lacking any real plot, it is not as satisfying as it could be. When the admittedly tongue-in-cheek ending comes, it feels as if the audience perhaps may have been cheated by a slick snake-oil salesman after all. Much like the ramshackle character it presents, The Great Galvani doesn't accomplish all that much, but it does so with style.