The world premiere of Michael Kramer's Divine Rivalry, at Hartford Stage through March 20th, is intellectually fascinating. Michael Wilson directs and it is the final time he does so as the theater's artistic director. The script finds four characters oftentimes embroiled, through dialogue, in discussion. This, evidently, is based upon reality and the action occurs in Florence, 1504.
Piero Soderini (Simon Jones) is chief magistrate and Niccolò Machiavelli (Scott Parkinson) chancellor of the Republic of Florence. These men, whose temperaments are dissimilar, set up a painting contest between Leonardo da Vinci (Peter Strauss) and Michelangelo Buonarroti (Aaron Krohn). The idea is to place the artwork on a wall and perhaps have a mural.
Leonardo and Michelangelo are not on the best of terms, and this comes without surprise. Soderini wants each to outdo the other but Michelangelo is to be paid far less than Leonardo. Soderini and Machiavelli have hopes that everyone and everything (the artists, the coordinators, and the Republic) will benefit as the artistic titans get to work.
Thematically, Divine Rivalry is about ethics, morality, art, and even religion. All factor into the process. Once the production is rolling, the interplay and interface amongst the characters is spirited, crackling, and entertaining. That Michelangelo never really proceeds beyond a drawing is pretty much beside the point. That masterful painters will receive funding as each creates art is vitally relevant and contemporary in implication. One of the primary questions focuses upon survival of artists; this applies then and now, too.
Wilson brings together designers with whom he has often worked. The show begins with declarative, percussive music and sound provided by John Gromada. Hartford Stage has modified its typical thrust space into a proscenium configuration for Divine Rivalry. That choice works well and allows set designer Jeff Cowie to display suitable columns of the era as well as hints of visual artistrylovely touches. Costumer David C. Woolard outfits the actors in distinctive period garb.
The first years of the fifteenth century in Florence was viewed as a time for profound thinkers to energize the Republic. Thus, Michelangelo created David, who was heroic. Machiavelli thought that a rivalry between Leonardo and Michelangelo might bequeath brilliant art. The play is about individual paintings and much more.
Michael Kramer, playwright, is best known as a political journalist. He has written for New York Magazine, Time, and many other periodicals. Kramer researched the Italian Renaissance before scripting the current play. The project prompted Wilson to do some research since he, himself, wasn't aware that Leonardo and Michelangelo knew one another. Assuredly, D.S. Moynihan, as dramaturg, brought further clarification and insight relative to this time and place in history.
The cast is quite strong. Perhaps Parkinson, as Machiavelli, could project his voice more consistently. Sometimes, but not always, he is easily heard by those in upper orchestra seats. The individual acting turns by all are well delineated and convincing. The artistic and production teams, along with the formidable performance ensemble, function as a unit. Wilson does a fine job facilitating tension.
Just for one moment, Leonardo and Michelangelo come together as artists viewing the other two from a similar perspective. Otherwise, it is pretty clear that the shining artists will never get along.
One might think that Wilson would select a Tennessee Williams or Horton Foote work for his finale at Hartford Stage. His choice of Divine Rivalry, however, is an inspired one. The play challenges its audience to actively engage with the production, catch on, and then attentively enjoy the proceedings.
Divine Rivalry continues at Hartford Stage through March 20th. For tickets, call (860) 527-5151 or visit hartfordstage.org.
- Fred Sokol