CHICAGO—When it first opened in 1993 at the Goodman Studio Theatre, the show was spectacular, and now—almost three decades later—“The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci” is still a wondrous, ingenious, whimsical, and stunning piece of theater.
Adapted from the Renaissance man’s notebooks by Mary Zimmerman, who also directs the 90-minute show, aspects of the 5,000 pages that he wrote backward (so that they could be read only by using a mirror) come alive on stage. The production isn’t so much a biographical work or a plot-driven drama, but it’s more a look into the consciousness of one of the most imaginative minds in history.
In “The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci,” we are introduced to the Italian polymath who, because everything fascinated him, never spent a dull moment in boredom. Zimmerman captures the workings of Leonardo’s mind in such an engaging and compelling way that we can’t help but be drawn into his enthralling world. As the play unfolds, we are amazed by his artistic and scientific endeavors, his commentary on an array of natural wonders, his observations of people, and his intriguing recollections.
Each of the eight-member cast represents Leonardo (1452–1519) at different stages of his life, and various aspects of his wide-ranging interests and personalities. The performers not only are polished actors but also exhibit a sense of grace, balance, and athletic skills that they use to demonstrate ideas from the notebooks. These include Christopher Donahue, the only cast member in the original production; Christiana Clark, Kasey Foster, Adeoye, Cruz Gonzalez-Cadel, John Gregorio, Anthony Irons, and Wai Yim.
Instructions on life from the Italian grand master come to life in the supple actions of the players. Here, there’s a lesson in anatomy with a detailed explanation of arm and height span, and the proportions of a human body are illustrated by two actors in the famous Leonardo sketch “Vitruvian Man.” Furthermore, the elements that Leonardo focuses on seem to pop out of designer Scott Bradley’s file cabinets that line the wall of the stage and suggest the compartments of the artist-scientist’s mind.
Leonardo’s interest in the anatomy of the human body goes even further than just notating dimensions when he dissects a cadaver. He gives a lecture on the science of voice, which, when presented on a blackboard, turns into a harmonious rendition of an old song.
There’s also, as is typical of Zimmerman’s productions, plenty of humor. The scenes in which Leonardo compares painting to sculpture, with a reference to Michelangelo (1475–1564), suggest a bit of jealousy, as when he points out that what his artistic rival does with sculpture is not as significant as what Leonardo himself does with painting. The scene is made more comedic when one of the actors stands in the pose of Michelangelo’s famous “David” marble.
While all the actors play the part of Leonardo, the most compelling is that of Christopher Donahue. The scene of him recalling a childhood memory in which he came upon a falcon, beautifully stylized by Kasey Foster, offers a look into the spiritual side of the artist. And Donahue is especially charming when he describes how Leonardo adopted a 10-year-old boy who stole from him and got into all sorts of trouble but then became his apprentice.
While “The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci” is a cornucopia of lush, evocative scenes, enhanced by T.J. Gerckens’s lighting, the most ravishing image of all is presented toward the end of the play when Leonardo’s lines of perspective are illustrated in a representation of his legendary painting “Madonna of the Rocks.” As the revival unfolds, there’s appealing original music by Miriam Sturm and Michael Bodeen, who is also the sound designer.
One wonders why Zimmerman never brings up Leonardo’s most popular work, the “Mona Lisa.” Could it be that she thought the painting was so well-known that it would be overkill to bring it into the show?
While the stage artistry is stunning, Zimmerman also brings in Leonardo’s philosophical outlook, which offers an insightful look into the character of the man. By play’s end, we come to understand that Leonardo was concerned with the harmony and proportion of nature, intrigued by the way life transitioned into death, and thought that if one understands something completely, one can’t help but love it.
‘The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci’
The Owen at Goodman Theatre
170 N. Dearborn St., Chicago, Ill.
Information: 312-443-3800 or GoodmanTheatre.org
Runs: 1 hour, 30 minutes
Closes: March 20, 2022