Mary Zimmerman — a playwright, opera and theater director, and performance studies educator — is a true original in contemporary theater. Her best-known work is Metamorphoses, which won her a Tony Award for Best Direction; and let us not forget she is a bloody “Genius,” awarded by the MacArthur Foundation.
So when she comes to town to present any of her work, there is something to learn here. This is the fourth time she has teamed with Shakespeare Theatre Company (STC): In 2003, she directed Pericles (reprised in the summer of 2006 and presented in STC’s Free for All); in 2008, she brought her touring production of Argonautika, about Jason and his Argonauts; and in 2010, she directed Candide.
This month, Zimmerman shares a revival of her 2003 work where she had turned to the great Renaissance artist Leonardo da Vinci, specifically to his Notebooks — made up of sketches, notes, ideas, and theories on matters ranging from painting to science — to plumb the very workings of the mind of the man.
Zimmerman is meticulous and exacting in her artistic excavations of classical works. She is also a visionary artist. She clearly has pored over da Vinci’s pages, steeped in the swirl of his prodigious wonderings — a genius in conversation with a genius.
The set in the newly named Klein Theatre ingeniously pronounces the ambitious size of what Zimmerman has tackled. Scenic Designer Scott Bradley has created a brilliant stage world. The sides of the stage from floor to proscenium-top are lined with wooden laboratory cabinets. The scenography of a vast workshop signals the proceedings: a series of “drawers” from the mind of a genius to be opened, their contents to be examined one by one. In the middle of the upstage area, a canvas painted in distant perspective depicts an Italian landscape and reminds us of da Vinci as the consummate Renaissance painter. The whole is lit beautifully by Designer T.J. Gerckens.
What happens to the sequencing, however, becomes a strange cerebral exercise, and maybe that is the point. Like da Vinci’s notebooks, as he himself wrote, the scenes are “a collection without order.”
A group of performers, like workers in a master artist’s workshop, gather and show-and-tell one-after-another theories or musings from the Notebooks. The skimpy printed program tell us simply that the eight performers all are called Leonardo. As da Vinci beheld in wonder the vastness of the universe, so may we, Zimmerman insists, all be beholders; we are all da Vinci.
Adeoye, Christopher Donahue, Kasey Foster, John Gregorio, Anthony Irons, Louise Lamson, Andrea San Miguel, and Wai Yim are lovely performers. They speak the musings of Leonardo, occasionally sing, dance, move and carry each other around the stage. At the end of many scenes, there’s a tableau bringing a full stop to an idea, then they start building a new one.
There is no showboating; there are no star turns. The style of performance is workmanlike. The closest thing to a stand-out moment is when seven begin to physicalize a kind of cat’s cradle together with string to demonstrate the rules of perspective while Adeoye stands downstage and sings in a sweet countertenor voice. As a beautiful voice can do, his singing broke open my heart. The final tableau of this scene was affecting because of the approach and came the closest to a transformational moment in theater.
Zimmerman has always been on the vanguard of an anti-actor style of performance, and her Notebooks aligns neatly with a kind of intentional workshop feel and focus. To this audience member, the awe and wonder the director wanted to achieve remained a statement rather than conveyed as feeling, and the whole added up to be less than the sum of its parts.
I want to end with an acknowledgment of STC’s relatively newly minted mission: “Shakespeare Theatre Company creates, preserves and promotes classic theatre — ambitious and enduring plays with universal themes — for all audiences.” The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci was ambitious, certainly. Enduring? Probably this is one to be put back in one of the drawers.
Running Time: 90 minutes with no intermission.
The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci plays through October 23, 2022, presented by Shakespeare Theatre Company at the Klein Theatre, 450 7th Street NW, Washington, DC. Tickets ($35–$120) may be purchased online or by calling the Box Office at 202-547-1122. Special discounts are available for members of the military, students, seniors, and patrons age 35 and under. Contact the Box Office or visit Shakespearetheatre.org/tickets-and-events/special-offers/ for more information.
The STC Asides+ program for The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci is online here.
Open-captioned performances will be on Thursday, October 13 at 7:30 p.m., and Saturday, October 15 at 2 p.m.
An audio-described performance will be on Saturday, October 22 at 2:00 p.m. Seating in the audio description section may also be reserved by calling the Box Office.
A Post-Show Discussion is scheduled for Wednesday, October 12 at 7:30 p.m.
COVID Safety: All patrons must wear masks at all times within the theater.
The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci
The Goodman Theatre production. Written and Directed by Mary Zimmerman.
Scenic Design by Scott Bradley. Lighting Design by T.J. Gerckens. Costume Design by Mara Blumenfeld. Sound Design/Original Music by Michael Bodeen and Original Music also by Miriam Sturm. Movement Consultant Tracy Walsh. Acrobatic Consultant Sylvia Hernandez-DiStasi. With Adeoye, Christopher Donahue, Kasey Foster, John Gregorio, Anthony Irons, Louise Lamson, Andrea San Miguel, and Wai Yim.