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The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

The task of following the significant success of Metamorphoses could not have been an easy one for Mary Zimmerman. Her adaptation of the stories of Ovid for the stage, which was acclaimed both on and Off-Broadway, won her critical acclaim and a Tony Award for her work. Zimmerman has now returned to New York, with a new production of The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci.

While she's unlikely to find quite the same success this time around, her work on this production will certainly cement her New York reputation as one of the most creative and innovative directors of recent seasons. She hasn't topped her previous work, but has again raised her own personal bar, living up to the high expectations lavished upon her in the wake of Metamorphoses.

Like that show, The Notebooks of Leonardo Da Vinci suggests that no avenue is not open to Zimmerman. In her hands, it seems as if nearly anything is fair game for theatricalization. Not dramatization, mind you, as Zimmerman has not complete succeeded in making a case for da Vinci's writings and sketches as a dramatic work in the traditional sense. Working from the 5,000 pages or so of Da Vinci's surviving writing, what Zimmerman has done is fashioned a piece of disarming beauty and significant magic, bringing da Vinci's works to three-dimensional life.

This is evident from the first glimpse of Scott Bradley's set, which evokes both the physical workshop in which da Vinci might have worked and the seemingly infinite capacity of the human mind. The walls are covered with file cabinets and drawers of every shape and size and beams and platforms assist with multi-leveled stage pictures and acrobatic tricks. Every inch of the workshop's space is available to use in the presentation of da Vinci's works.

Among the topics broached by the eight members of the company (all of whom are listed in the Playbill as playing Leonardo) using da Vinci's own words are gravity, the four powers of nature, percussion, sleep and dreaming, invention, flight, perspective, the measurements of the human body, and more. These are all presented in straightforwardly theatrical ways - complex patterns of string define the boundaries of human vision or a short woman uses simple concepts gravity to perform impressive physical feats on a man much larger than she is, and so on.

As da Vinci delighted in making the complex or intimidating easily understandable, so do Zimmerman's frequently Herculean performers. As each is given moments to impress and quiet, it's difficult to single out individuals; they form a tight, cohesive ensemble that works well together even when working apart. Doug Hara's acrobatics, Mariann Mayberry's feats of strength and worldly-wise attitude, and Anjali Bhimani's exotic, striking presence and voice leap immediately to mind, but everyone's contributions are vital.

This includes Mara Blumenfeld's costumes and TJ Gercken's lights, both of which go a long way to establishing the mood of orderly surprise and invention that infuses the production. And, of course, Zimmerman's adaptation and direction cannot be dismissed, her theatrical creations here remaining striking and unique. Her overriding message throughout is that the simple and familiar should never be underestimated and her stage pictures and demonstration of da Vinci's concepts and artistic works, usually with little more than common items and the wonders of the human body, are often inspiring.

Yet without a single, overarching goal or a slightly more rigid structural framework, the boundaries of the show feel indistinct, as though it has no real beginning and no real end. As appropriate as that is for an examination of da Vinci's work, it is less than completely satisfying as theatre, and the evening as a whole feels wispier and more ephemeral than the less realistic and grounded Metamorphoses.

Still, Zimmerman - like da Vinci - has no end of ideas. The creations of any brilliant inventor inspire thoughts about what will come next, and Zimmerman's task to top The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci, again, is not an easy one, but hopefully she will make her attempt sooner rather than later.

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Second Stage Theatre
The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci
Extended through August 3
Running Time: Approximately 90 minutes with no intermission
Second Stage, 307 West 43rd Street off 8th Avenue
Schedule and Tickets: 212.246.4422