New production at The Old Globe an intensely artistic tribute to Leonardo Da Vinci
by Cassiopeia Guthrie, January 26, 2023
I entered expecting a play and left reeling from the visually stimulating and immersive exploration that is the Mary Zimmerman piece The Notebooks of Leonardo Da Vinci, newly arrived at The Old Globe’s Donald and Darlene Shiley Stage and running through February 26. It is not an exaggeration to say that this production packs a perceptive punch.
I was most surprised by how, in writer/director Zimmerman’s hands, the intellectual meanderings of scientist and artist Da Vinci are transformed into intensely creative chaos. While more of an extended metaphorical dance set to language than a story, The Notebooks of Leonardo Da Vinci is artfully choreographed and presented with faithful ministration by eight actors, all of whom play the titular genius.
I was struck by how the performances by the cast (Adeoye, Christopher Donahue, Kasey Foster, John Gregorio, Anthony Irons, Louise Lamson, Andrea San Miguel, and Wai Yim) were compelling in their own rights, but also comprehensively blocked for maximum effect. The actors toggle effortlessly between the contrast of multiple components competing for attention and utter stillness.
There are expertly delivered monologues paired with lifts, bricks and hammers leveraged for comedic effect, mechanical movements and dances, and a self-supporting wooden bridge that is built, climbed on, and dismantled. At one point, ropes are run to all edges of the stage, rolls of paper and handfuls of rocks hurled across the deck, as the actors drop to their knees to draw. “Choose work which does not die when you do,” one of the Leonardos beseeches the audience.
Performances aside, there are strokes of brilliance in the production’s scenic design (Scott Bradley). The floor to ceiling cabinet drawers that make up the set walls are leveraged as ladders and seats, opened to reveal pools, staircases, and the strata of the Earth, and rotated to expose wood burnings.
Hanging bars and window frames become the architecture on which actors hang and swing and play (under the tutelage of acrobatic consultant Sylvia Hernandez-DiStasi). Portals and swings and meadows appear in the stage floor and walls. Live birds flutter within a gilded cage. Each element is highlighted by a stunning light plot (T.J. Gerckens), original music by Miriam Sturn and Michael Bodeen (who additionally tackles sound design), and with costumes by Mara Blumenfeld.
I’m exhausted after my peek into Da Vinci’s mind - a space that housed imagination, illusion, and ingenuity all at once. That said, I feel like I could see this show another five times and experience or learn something different each trip. The Old Globe, nestled between museums and historical landmarks, seems just the right venue for a historical, figurative, and artistic production like this one.
The Notebooks of Da Vinci runs through February 26 at The Old Globe in Balboa Park.