The cast of "The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci." Photo by Jim Cox
If only studying science or art history had been as engrossing in school as it is in Mary Zimmerman’s “The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci” in which the bromides, theses and philosophies of the great master are animated by movement, acrobatics and stage play.
The contradiction is that theatrical doesn’t necessarily translate to theater. While inventive and mostly diverting throughout its 90 minutes, “Notebooks” nonetheless taxes the attention span. Without a narrative arc or characters to invest in or any sort of palpable dramatic tension, this production of Zimmerman’s 1993 work at the Old Globe Theatre demands both patience and suspension of expectations.
Yes, the unpredictability of its sequences is part of the allure, along with scenic design by Scott Bradley that enables climbing, roping, perching and fanciful entrances and exits by the eight performers (all named Leonardo). Within this playground realm, they pose and perform while the words of da Vinci are heard as they move and react. I found myself mesmerized by what was onstage and only half-listening. I’m just not that receptive to intellectualized dissections of active processes such as painting.
Even if I personally would rather be mystified without explanation by what heights an artist or scientist can reach, da Vinci was compelled to break them down for us in the reportedly 20,000 or more pages of notes he made in his remarkable lifetime. You can be amazed by “The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci” if you give yourself over completely to its stagey exposition, directed at the Globe by Zimmerman.
The set pieces are meticulously conceived, to the point of appearing choreographed. They are also difficult to describe and to do justice to here, for each movement, paralleling da Vinci’s dissertations, is a significant part of the whole. They are pensive and thought provoking if not emotional, the representation of a brilliantly imaginative mind that operated like clockwork and gave the world order and understanding.
The athletic and expressive “Leonardos” are to be commended: Adeoye, Christopher Donahue, Kasey Foster, John Gregorio, Anthony Irons, Louise Lamson, Andrea San Miguel and Wai Yim. So too should Mara Blumenfeld for her costuming (based on Allison Reeds’ original design).
Chiefly, “The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci” establishes that with a genius, the left and right sides of the brain can not only function together but do so prodigiously and with eloquence. To some extent, this unusual piece is a journey inside that brain and its wondrous workings.
“The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci” runs through Feb. 26 at the Old Globe Theatre in Balboa Park.
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.