Leonardo da Vinci was one of the Western world’s great geniuses, but 503 years after his death, it would have to be said that his achievements are rather more lopsided than earlier admirers might have thought. He was significantly more successful as a painter, for example, than as a designer of flying machines.
Stripped of the constraints of plot, however, his ideas take flight at the Klein Theatre with the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s revival of “The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci,” written and directed by Mary Zimmerman and going on now until Oct. 23. With dialogue — or, really, one giant, shared monologue — taken entirely from the polymath’s own journals and memoranda, eight actors (five men and three women) in vaguely Renaissance-ish costumes explore physics, visual perspective, and humanity’s relationship with the elements. They dance, they sketch, they sing, they climb and scatter, all while offering artistic advice and philosophical musings.
Think of a Tom Stoppard play minus the story, and you’re most of the way there.
Actors Adeoye, Christopher Donahue, Kasey Foster, John Gregorio, Anthony Irons, Louise Lamson, Andrea San Miguel and Wai Yim all play da Vinci, in a way, reading us his thoughts, his experiences, his shopping lists. They also all play his subjects, and, in a way, us discovering the material as well. This is theatre of ideas so distilled that the ensemble, all of them strong, are relieved of much of the burden of characterization. But their engagement with — and by — the text is one of the greatest pleasures in a show full of them.
What Zimmerman has crafted is an elegant, intelligent playroom, where concepts float and bounce alongside literal feathers and balls. This is the very rare play aimed at adults that would also be great for younger audiences, because, while scientific understanding outstripped Leonardo long ago, his sense of wonder at the world is both ageless and contagious.
And what a space scene designer Scott Bradley has constructed for these experiments of the mind. Upstage, a picturesque, possibly Italian countryside, suitable for the background of a da Vince portrait. Filling the stage, tall file cabinet walls that, along with a trap door and an upper apparatus very capable of sustaining human weight, simply never stop revealing their secrets. Don’t try guessing what strange surprises will be pulled into view: a glowing image of a fetus, tanks of reflective water, a couple of the most confused birds in D.C. One large drawer slides out to reveal a row of golden wheat, like something out of a dream. Another has a bag of sticks, which, stacked the right way, make an arch you can walk on.
It’s a visual feast to balance out the temporal one, and to make sure a show where little really “happens” always has lots going on. “The Notebooks of Leonardo” is essentially 90 minutes of nonfiction poetry. You might not actually learn anything new, but no part of it feels old either.
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