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Mariann Mayberry, Paul Oakley Stovall, Louise Lamson, and
Anjali Bhimani in The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
There may be less to Mary Zimmerman's The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci than meets the eye, but what meets the eye is such eye-candy that those tempted to feast on it won't care about lack of standard, nutritional dramatic content.

Scott Bradley's set alone -- which features stage-high filing cabinets of differing heights and widths combined with what seems like an adult's jungle gym and a view through an upstage arched opening at a blueish period landscape -- is endlessly fascinating. It gets climbed on, hung from, pulled out, altered into ladders and even a planter in which stands a block of tall wheat. The set is aesthetically satisfying and yet so complex that both Zimmerman and Bradley likely think of it as a metaphor for da Vinci's mind. That's where were born the notions that the indefatigable painter-sculptor-engineer-astronomer-anatomist-philosopher-architect-mathematician-biologist supposedly transferred into 50 volumes of text and drawings. It's from the 5,000 pages of the 28 extant volumes that this piece has been culled.

If, in adapting and directing her work, Zimmerman had the artist's quintessential Renaissance mind in mind, then it follows that the eight-person acting troupe, each member identified in the program as Leonardo, is meant to represent facets of the polymath's king-of-all-trades personality. During the 85 minutes of kaleidoscopic endeavor, each of the actors takes focus to deliver da Vinci pronunciamentos on, among assorted subjects, the proportions of the human body and how to draw faces that are only partially lit. The Leonardo surrogates recount dreams and expound on the nature of ripples caused by pouring water or discuss the dissection of cadavers. They compare sculpture unfavorably to painting and they explain perspective. (Leonardo's dates are 1452-1519, Michelangelo's are 1475-1564. Is it possible the former's comments about sculpture are a repudiation of the latter's growing reputation?)

What is most remarkable about Leonardo's multitudinous statements is the assurance with which they are made. Right or wrong about his theories, the genius by whom all subsequent geniuses seem to be measured believed implicitly in what he said. "The sun does not move," he declares definitively but with no further elaboration. (In saying so, he anticipated Galileo -- another Italian who couldn't stop his mind from galloping -- by a century.) Da Vinci can be so up-to-date that, although his ideas about flight didn't pan out until Orville and Wilbur Wright ripped him off, he does come to the contemporary-sounding conclusion that "everything is everything," which many theatergoers will recall was a rallying cry among 1970s free spirits.

While each Leonardo takes a turn speaking -- sometimes sonorously, sometimes lyrically, sometimes ruminatively -- the others, under Zimmerman's hand, supply counterpointed action that is enhanced by Mara Blumenfeld's quasi-Renaissance costumes, by TJ Gerckens's moody lighting, and especially by Michael Bodeen's sound design and the evocative music he's written with Miriam Sturm. When the remark about arm span and height is made, Zimmerman has actors demonstrate by lying prone and extending their arms between two blocks and then lying supine between the blocks. They don't fit exactly, but close enough. When one of the actors (Christopher Donahue) tells a story of dreaming about walking in the hills as a boy and discovering the opening to a cave, another one (Anjali Bhimani) stands behind him, reiterating the story in Italian.

When Donahue describes a childhood memory about being assaulted by a falcon, Lizzy Cooper Davis, wearing a stylized falcon's mask, descends from a perch above the stage and moves toward him with a ballerina's fluid port de bras. When the interplay of force and lightness of weight is under scrutiny, the deceptively strong Mariann Mayberry not only supplies the information, she lifts and is lifted by Paul Oakley Stovall into a series of gravity-defying positions. Perhaps the most beautiful of Zimmerman's demonstrations is her use of thin gold ropes to indicate the lines of perspective in Leonardo's ineffable "Madonna of the Rocks." Incidentally, the only reference to Mona Lisa is that blue-ish backdrop; otherwise, the adaptor-director leaves the globe's most famous painting to the camera-toters at the Louvre.

Anjali Bhimani, Mariann Mayberry, Lizzy Cooper Davis, Kyle Hall,
Christopher Donahue, and Louise Lamson in The Notebooks
of Leonardo da Vinci

(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Apparently having been intrigued by the notebooks for some years, Zimmerman has created a stage event that seconds what appears to be da Vinci's underlying but not always explicitly expressed theme: that harmony and proportion are the world's underpinnings. A man curious about everything, Leonardo further believed that knowledge breeds understanding -- or, as is repeated three times in one passage about life and death, that "great love springs from great knowledge of the beloved object, and if you little know it, you will be able to love it only little or not at all."

That's the only moment, however, when The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci seems to invoke emotion, unless Zimmerman's obvious love and admiration of Leonardo's uniquely capacious mind has emotional elements in itself. Leonardo does ask at a later moment, "And if there is no love, what then?" There's no extensive answer. The work, which isn't really a play and perhaps shouldn't be judged as one, is more of a lecture than anything else, albeit a lecture with the most sumptuous visual and aural aids a body could hope for.

Anyway, the repetition of the above-quoted remark about love is typical of Leonardo. It's something that Zimmerman plugs because, as a da Vinci quote accompanying the press materials reads, "I believe that I shall have to repeat the same thing several times; for which, O reader, blame me not, because the subjects of the world are many, and memory alone cannot retain them." This may apply to O reader but may not hold for O viewer. Also, the harmony that da Vinci saw as a goal isn't always realized on stage. Not infrequently, what's said and what's acted out are at cross purposes; for example, when three actors are executing synchronized movements adjacent to a lone speaker, one's inclination is to watch rather than listen.

In order for Zimmerman's project to work, she needs performers who have the grace of dancers, the athletic abilities of Olympic gymnasts, and a pitchman's oratorical skills. This won't come as news to anyone who attended the award-winning Metamorphoses. Less prominent on the list of requirements is acting talent, which some of the players possess -- among them Doug Hara, Mariann Mayberry, and Christopher Donahue -- and others, like Paul Oakley Stovall, are somewhat shy of. All of them boast everything else Zimmerman needs. Mayberry is impressive in the lifting sequence and again later, when she's a woman walking in a field under a skeletal gold parasol. Hara and Kyle Hall have a possibly homoerotic encounter that is then repeated, in accelerating movement, many times over. Anjali Bhimani tells her version of the cave story with feeling, Lizzy Cooper Davis has her best moments as the seductive falcon, and Louise Lamson also contributes to the breathtaking tableaux.

During his life, Leonardo da Vinci began any number of beautiful paintings that he left unfinished. Something similar could be said of Mary Zimmerman's Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci: It's gorgeous but, perhaps, incomplete.

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