‘Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci’ filled with wonder but light on story
By turning repeatedly to spectacle for the duration of the production’s 90-minute runtime, director/adaptor Mary Zimmerman crafts a show that while lovely to behold, too often treats the words like an afterthought.
Tony-winning Mary Zimmerman’s “Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci” isn’t so much a drama about da Vinci as it is a showcase of visual wonders curated by the director/adaptor, accompanied by greeting-card-sized sound bites from the great Renaissance genius. The 29th anniversary revival in the Goodman’s Owen theater offers a grab bag of beguiling visual flourishes as it spotlights segments Zimmerman has culled from the 5,000 pages of notebooks left behind by the 15th century polymath.
That’s a shame, because there are wonders in the notes left by the man who painted the “Mona Lisa,” who determined the sun was fixed in the sky, and whose many inventions — self-propelled cart, parachute, diving suit, flying machine — laid the seeds for their modern-day equivalents.
When: Through Mar. 20
Where: Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn
Tickets: $15 - $55
Run-time: 90 minutes, no intermission
But by turning repeatedly to spectacle for the duration of the production’s 90-minute runtime, Zimmerman crafts a show that while lovely to behold, too often treats the words like an afterthought.
Near the top of the show (which premiered in 1993 when the Goodman was in the School of the Art Institute) we’re told precisely what we’re in for: a “collection without order.” Instead of a plot or character development, “Notebooks” provides the audience with a series of whimsical vignettes. Each of eight actors plays “Leonardo,” and all alternate between spotlight and chorus.
There are ideas in the dialogue that leave an indelible impression: Time is the great consumer of all things. Great love only comes with great knowledge of the beloved. Weeping and laughing are physiologically identical, but for the eyebrows.
But the power and layers within da Vinci’s notes are overshadowed by a convoluted, repetitious mixture of dance, acrobatics, a cappella singing and elaborate prop work.
Set designer Scott Bradley’s work is similar to his 1993 original: Towering filing cabinets flank the stage, their handles forming climbing walls that allow the eight-person cast to clamber, leap and hang upside-down as Zimmerman’s quirky, acrobatic choreography demands. The cabinets hold all manner of things: chalkboards, accordions, staircases, revolving doors, gowns, stones, water, clattering flying machines. At one point, a small wheat field rolls upstage. At another, drawers open to reveal sheets of mirror that tilt and reflect the designs of cast members frantically sketching and scribbling on a papered floor.
In addition to drawing and climbing and swinging, the cast uses hopscotch and clapping games to tackle everything from the harmonic proportions of the human form to the physics of a star. At one point, the entire stage becomes a giant version of cat’s cradle, the cast vectored inside the macrame.
The images Zimmerman creates are often remarkable in their beauty, such as when a small pool emerges and makes the whole stage flicker with silvery, watery ripples. The work of lighting designer T.J. Gerckens (who also designed the original) is subtly, powerfully effective throughout, whether providing a warm glow around a re-enactment of a sacred sculpture or an etching of shadows within a portrait.
The costumes are sumptuous. Mara Blumenfeld (basing her work on the original design by Allison Reeds) has outfitted the cast in sumptuous brocades and shimmering linens, with ruffly embellishments that nod to the late 15th/early 16th century when da Vinci lived. Everything is meant to move easily: Blumenfeld pulls off form and function in high style.
“Notebooks” maintains a fluidity through disparate topics — mathematics, astronomy, sculpting and painting, among them. That’s in part due to Miriam Sturm and Michael Bodeen’s original music and Bodeen’s immersive sound design. As before, the duo’s core helps weave an atmosphere that flutters from somber and profound to playful and silly in the space of a step.
The cast is all in. As a beaked creature that haunts da Vinci’s imagination, Kasey Foster has a sharp, avian grace. Cruz Gonzalez-Cadel and Adeoye seem to defy gravity while displaying seemingly effortless strength in an architectural pas de deux that accompanies da Vinci’s ideas on weight. Original cast member Christopher Donahue returns here, with a craggy sagacity that gives the show gravitas, even when he’s rolling across the floor like a convenience store hotdog. Wai Yim delivers a lilting, mini-treatise on longing and nature, while John Gregoria (with Foster) captures the infinite tension between bodies twined together and then wrenched forcibly apart. Christiana Clark brings a dancer’s grace to her every movement, whether she’s propelling herself skyward or embodying the power of gesture in discourse. And Anthony Irons brings an impish gleam and a ballet dancer’s gorgeous athleticism throughout.
But in the end, “Notebooks” is primarily a visual bag of tricks. It’s a feast for the eyes, but a superficial take on a subject of infinite depth.