The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci, Shakespeare Theatre Company
In 2008, I saw my first production of a Mary Zimmerman play, one directed by the playwright herself. The show was Argonautika at the Shakespeare Theatre Company, and I was mesmerized. Daniel Ostling's set for that production was a gleaming wooden box that framed the action and somehow held infinite possibilities. I've realized over the years and many more Zimmerman-directed productions how much she loves a magic box, and after all, isn't that what a stage is at its heart. Her Candide at Shakespeare had a similar wooden frame, after all, and a Metamorphoses at Arena Stage relied on nothing so much as a magic box of water. She loves the moment of theatrical delight when the audience realizes a new way that a space can be used, and the way that reminding us that we're watching performers at work doesn't lessen the impact of theatrical magic but actually increases it.
Photo of Adeoye, Anthony Irons, Wai Yim, Andrea San Miguel, and Christopher Donahue in The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci by Scott Suchman.
As I walked inside the Klein Theatre at STC last night and saw a stage framed by rows and rows of archival drawers, you can imagine the anticipation that started to grow. I felt like a theatrical prospector, waiting to see those possibilities mined--and sure enough, the actors revealed a myriad of ways to use Scott Bradley's intricately designed set, each illuminated by T.J. Gerckens's sensitive lighting design.
As much as Zimmerman thrives as a writer and director with an adaptation, Notebooks is a challenging choice, as the vast majority of the text comes from, well, the actual notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci, filled with his observations on form, painting, scientific explorations, and also shopping lists and observations from daily life. There's not so much a story to mine from as a life to sample, and this is where Zimmerman's own creativity matches so well with her subject's. The Leonardo captured in the Notebooks is one of infinite curiosity and it takes a similar theatrical creativity to bring these notes to life on stage. On the page, Leonardo's notebooks are filled with everything from scientific observations of blood to the physics of sound production to the mathematics of bodily proportions and the way painting can capture the reflection of light and color; brilliant observations, but bound to the page. Art like tableau vivant can use living bodies to recreate painted masterpieces, but Notebooks brings the insatiable curiosity of Leonardo's mind itself to life with the movement and sound and energy of an excellent ensemble of actors (each of whom are credited as playing Leonardo).
Photo of Wai Yim, Adeoye, Louise Lamson, and Andrea San Miguel in The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci by Scott Suchman.
Truth be told, I don't know that The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci is for everyone, but there's so much to appreciate in this production. The sheer invention in this staging rivals anything I've ever seen, going beyond the thrill of just seeing something theatricalized that as on the page may seem irrevocably inert, and into moment after moment of beautiful, innovative stagecraft. So much of Leonardo's genius was spent in understanding the human body; how it moved, how it rested, what it could convey, how its interior intricacies produced life. It makes perfect, harmonious sense, then, that the best moments of Zimmerman's Notebooks are the ones that perform something unexpected and delightful simply through the way the ensemble moves through the space. Zimmerman worked with acrobatic consultant Sylvia Hernandez-Distasi and movement consultant Tracy Walsh, and the result is a gorgeous fluidity and athleticism throughout the evening that moves us from moment to moment. Notebooks may not be for everyone, but it's certainly for me, and for anyone ready to open a magical, theatrical box of an evening.