Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco

Berkeley Repertory Theatre
Presents a Stimulating
Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci

Also see Richard's review of Noises Off

Berkeley Repertory Theatre starts its 2003/2004 season with Mary Zimmerman's The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci. This is a co-production with New York's Second Stage Theatre where the play was produced this summer. The performance art docudrama opens a window into the mind of one of history's most original and imaginative figures: painter, sculptor and inventor Leonardo da Vinci. All of the words spoken by eight actors are based on the 5,000 pages of existing notes written by the Renaissance genius.

The New York critics were ecstatic about Mary Zimmerman's work. One critic called the drama "Magical! ... filled with wonders. Zimmerman is a smart and graceful synthesizer!" The playwright who scored a big hit with Metamorphoses uses Leonardo's own journal entries to interlace a series of vignettes that bring his words alive. The actors expound on da Vinci's fascination with anatomy, botany, painting, drawing and the human being. Rather then a series of dry lectures, adapter and director Zimmerman combines the words with theatrical imagination. There is an ingenious mix of music, dance and acrobatics to make the 90 minute production come alive. This is avant-garde theater that will not intimidate the audience. You just sit back and listen to the words and watch the eloquent performers bring life to this genius's inquisitiveness of the world around him.

Doug Hara, Hyle Hall, Mariann Mayberry
and Paul Oakley Stovall

Notebooks contains many wonderful and beguiling scenes. We see demonstrations of his discoveries in painting and perspective. There are sequences of beauty, such as a cadaver's categorization showing a beautiful trembling heart; a vivid description and representation of the artistic perspectives with strings coming from the stationary actors that evokes his The Virgin of the Rocks; and a fascination with motion and flight which includes a ludicrously touching Lizzy Cooper Davis who flops helplessly about in one of Leonardo flying contraptions. There is even a light side to Leonardo's brilliance, since he has trouble keeping his own household under control. The performing arts are filled with humanity, wit, invention and some surprises.

Notebooks' eight performers have clearly immersed the words of Leonardo as they interpose his meanings with gestures and movements to create a breathtaking experience. All of the eight actors are Leonardo da Vinci, and Christopher Donahue as the elder artist is very poignant when he says "All the while I thought I was learning how to live, I have been learning how to die." Mariann Mayberry along with Paul Oakley Stovall are vibrant in their lifting and balancing each others' bodies as Leonardo discusses weight and movement. Doug Hara is great as he scrambles about and crawls up file cabinets that surround the stage. Jane Cho, Lucia Brawley, Kyle Hall and Lizzy Cooper Davis are amazing in all of their scenes. There is even a little singing of a popular song by one of the artists to show how sound comes from the mouth, while another actor writes formulas on three blackboards on the principal of sound.

Designer Scott Bradley has created a vivid environment for the piece. The stage is surrounded on two sides with a number of large wooden drawers. Each of these drawers contains wonderful objects to excite the audience. An actual meadow pops out one of the cabinets; a pool of clear blue water appears from another to illuminate a point; from yet another, Leonardo pulls out live birds in a cage. The effect is miraculous and evocative.

The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci plays thru October 19 at the Berkeley Theatre Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison Street, Berkeley. For tickets call 510-647-2949 or visit

Next at the Rep will be Continental Divide: Mothers Against and Daughters of the Revolution by David Edgar. It opens on November 6th.

Photo: Ken Friedman

Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area

- Richard Connema

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