by Margaret Croyden

Photo of Margaret Croyden
Margaret Croyden is a theater reviewer and essayist for the New York Theatre Wire.

The Notebooks of Leonardo Da Vinci-- A Mistake
Adapted and Directed by Mary Zimmerman
Second Stage Theater
307 West 43rd Street
opened June 29, 2003
Reviewed by Margaret Croyden June 30, 2003

Fresh from her Broadway success and her Tony Award for "Metamorphoses," Mary Zimmerman has tried to maintain her reputation as an avant-garde director, or at least someone who experiments with texts. In "The Notebooks of Leonardo Da Vinci," Ms. Zimmerman has chosen to adapt (no less) the work and mind of the Renaissance genius, Leonardo as a subject for a theatrical piece. A daring aim no doubt, but she is unable to dramatize Leonardo's language or style, his abstract philosophical meandering, or his unique place in the world of art and science. Young actors with poor voices deliver parts of Leonardo's notebooks verbatim (facing the audience) and this is surprisingly dull. Zimmerman has made no effort to connect the pieces of his Notebooks together (admittedly they were written that way), so the direct recitations-- and that's what they are--became not only incomprehensible but exceedingly tedious. One learns nothing of Leonardo, the man; or Leonardo, the painter, although there are plenty of random thoughts on many subjects. But the words fall on deaf ears because they are presented as intellectual and academic discourses so that the piece has the quality of a classroom lecture, rather than a theatrical work. The Second Stage, is after all, a theater: there is a stage there, a setting, lights, costumes and so forth; it is not a recital hall.

To compensate for her inability to breathe life into the piece, Zimmerman has directed the company in a variety of arbitrary (nonsensical) movements meant to dramatize, or illustrate Leonardo's words. For example, the use of acrobatics: actors repeatedly swing from bars on stage; dance movements: mundane turns, twists, jumps, and leaps (one actor drags a woman on his back and vice versa). The company works hard as dancers, acrobats and actors, but it seemed to me that all the busy movements and all the posturing in the background was fluff to cover up the shallowness of the production--Leonardo or no Leonardo.

It is wonder that Ms. Zimmerman even attempted to pull this off. Maybe it is sign of hubris. Maybe she wanted to prove that she was brilliant, that she is an intellectual who can understand the greats. But if you mess with greats like Leonardo, you are sure to become second rate. Besides, the notebooks were meant to be read not dramatized. Only a master writer-director might enliven them, and perhaps could interject a sense of order and purpose. As for the company, they seem like high school kids showing off their tricks. There was hardly any variety in their presentations; it would have been wiser if the company had learned how to use the voice, or develop a sense of stage presence.

To make matters worse, the show lasts one hour and a half with no intermission, so the spectator is trapped in a freezing, overly air conditioned theater. Hey, give audiences a break. Let them leave if they want to. [Croyden]

Margaret Croyden's latest book, "Conversations With Peter Brook, 1970-2000," is published by Farrar Straus and Giroux.

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