If I told you that an 85-minute show told in the words of a centuries-dead painter, as he illuminates his central philosophies about his craft, would be one of the most inventive and magical productions you will see this year, you might not believe me. But if I told you that the playwright and director of this production is Tony and MacArthur “genius” award winner Mary Zimmerman, you’d probably understand immediately. To see any of her work, especially her original adaptations, is to become immersed in and surrounded by visual and lyrical beauty that one does not soon forget, and this is certainly the case for the Goodman Theatre’s revival of one of her early achievements, The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci.
Zimmerman here takes what Leonardo himself described as “a collection without order, taken from many papers, which I have copied here, hoping afterwards to rearrange them according to the subjects of which they treat,” and brings his ideas to marvelous life, using movement, music, sound, and the brilliant performances of her eight-person ensemble to do so. Leonardo says also that he is certain that he will repeat himself within his notebooks “because the subjects of the world are many, and memory alone cannot retain them.” Zimmerman uses these repetitions to emphasize important moments, one of which occurs in a poetic dreamlike monologue performed by Christopher Donahue with simultaneous Italian translation by Cruz Gonzales-Cadel. (Gonzales-Cadel also teams up with Kasey Foster later for a humorous Italian conversation praising Michelangelo, whose art—sculpting—Leonardo huffily dismisses in comparison to his own, saying, among other things, “the lines of perspective of sculptors do not seem in any way true; those of painters may appear to extend a hundred miles beyond the work itself.”)
This play may be focused entirely on artistic philosophy, but if you are thinking that it must therefore be boring you are completely wrong. Yes, Leonardo (played onstage by all of the ensemble members taking turns) lays out his “rules” for “boys who wish to paint,” discussing such esoteric elements as perspective, movement, light, time, etc., but Zimmerman makes these discussions visually fascinating and sprinkles them with more personal moments from his journals that focus on, among other things, the ten-year-old apprentice he takes in, a boy he renames “Salai,” or “little Satan.” (Foster, whose show-opening portrayal of a falcon is mesmerizing, plays the devious young man in a frequently comic performance.)
Throughout the play, the ensemble (which also includes movement captain Adeoye, Christiana Clark, John Gregorio, Anthony Irons, and Wai Yim) makes exciting use of Scott Bradley’s imaginative set, whose enormous walls are festooned with dozens of variously sized drawers, in which (when they are pulled out) we find props, hidden stairways, entire scene elements, and all sorts of unexpected and sometimes whimsical things. Occasionally, an actor will climb to the highest drawers, which will reveal seating platforms from which they can take part in the scenes from a distance as well as create more scenic variety. (The actors also make ample use of the high horizontal framework in the middle of the set.) The result, especially as highlighted by T. J. Gerckens’ lighting, is a visual delight that often resembles a circus or a playground more than a play and remains full of surprises throughout the entire evening.
Leonardo discusses the myriad ways in which art reflects life, focusing mostly on what he refers to as the four “powers” of nature: weight, force, accidental movement, and percussion. Zimmerman has tremendous fun visualizing these, using her actors almost as contortionists as they demonstrate the first three and creating a wall of sound for the fourth. All of this is accompanied by Michael Bodeen’s impressive sound design and the original music he has written with Miriam Sturm. (The two of them also co-wrote the music for the original production.) Music and non-percussive sound may not be among Leonardo’s “powers,” but here they are every bit as powerful as all of the other elements of the staging.
The play itself is fascinating from its opening moments, and its aural and visual beauty (the latter enhanced by Mara Blumenfeld’s costumes), as well as its transcendent philosophical constructs will make the non-artists in the audience see life in new ways. Not many plays can provide solid and varied entertainment and be potentially life-altering at the same time, but this is one of them.
The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci is playing at Goodman Theatre through March 20.