Theater archives

Divine Powers


For centuries Leonardo da Vinci’s work has provided divine inspiration for artists and thinkers. Finally it has found its way to the stage. Mary Zimmerman’s production (originally created in 1993) draws on Leonardo’s semi-scientific jottings, made between 1475 and 1519. Reflecting the mind of the original Renaissance man, the notebooks contain musings on painting, light, the human figure, the grace of birds, elementary physics, and even love. Leonardo records measurements, tells anecdotes about neighborhood children. He praises various features of the earth and species in a clinical voice sometimes given to spiritual tendencies. The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci isn’t so much a play as a recitation with stage pictures; in unison or as soliloquy, cast members take turns speaking as Leonardo, while others demonstrate principles or act out scenarios inspired by the subject matter.

The trouble is that, divinely inspired or not, The Notebooks is a work of directorial pastiche with frustrating immobility. “This is a collection out of order,” someone announces in the first scene, adding, “The subjects of the world are many.” That pronouncement is typical of the adaptation’s ventriloquism. Zimmerman makes Leonardo speak for her frequently, and his authentically individual voice never quite comes through. Whatever expressive potential the notebooks might have is undercut by the staging’s relentless cuteness and gimmickry. Outfitted in vaguely period vests and frocks, ensemble members perch and swing on jungle-gym bars overhead, pulling open drawers from side walls to reveal water troughs and staircases. They sit on the floor and draw, test out flying contraptions, flirt, and dance. Such playfulness, however, always hews to Zimmerman’s literalism. When the notebooks catalog the distances between body parts, out comes the tape measure as a man extends his arms. When the text contemplates how the body shifts weight “from support to support,” a couple demonstrates with gymnastic holds. When Leonardo lists 18 positions the human figure can assume—”to run,” “to stand upright,” etc. —everyone plays Twister. For a passage on the beauty of flight, a woman appears on the window ledge as a falcon and flaps her arms. The piece mostly rests on these glib illustrations, though some sequences gesture more metaphorically to universal mysteries, with ambient music and images of flight or desire.

What’s surprising about the production is how little biography or poetic resonance comes from the text, which the company tends to recite with the nuance of a server running through dinner specials. Zimmerman doesn’t ask her audience to think much, or even to listen or watch with particular care, only to admire the performers for speaking directly to us and telling us that humanism is about the wonder of it all. “Everything comes from everything,” intones one Leonardo at the conclusion—an idea that might have framed the production had it been embedded in the staging rather than announced.

Fresher forms are incubating in the laboratories of the “New York City Hip-Hop Theater Festival.” Hip-hop and drama share more than you might suppose. Both proceed—or purport to—from a need to speak out, to make stories public. Both require a certain electricity in the transmission, regardless of their ultimate message or meaning. Flow, a solo monologue written and performed by Will Power (for the festival and New York Theatre Workshop), makes the genres’ affinity apparent. The charismatic young actor-MC performs seven segments, inhabiting and commenting on personae from a mythic urban neighborhood: Ole’ Cheesy, a street- corner raconteur; a teacher in the projects; a dreadlocked preacher; a dance instructor; and others. Each is a storyteller in some way, and each fits as a different piece of a fantastical social mosaic.

Power has a striking presence, glowing and wiry, with cornrows pulled neatly back. He darts around the stage, dancing and gliding in and out of the characters he celebrates in rhyme and song. DJ Reborn punctuates and underscores throughout, mixing and scratching live from her station at the set’s fire-escape window, and looking on approvingly as Power holds forth in the streetscape below. His monologue—directed by festival founder Danny Hoch—points to hip-hop’s progressive side: no gangsta misogyny or homophobia here. Several of his people counsel on the virtues of health food, and another admonishes a bus driver to accept difference (“Didn’t your ancestors die so that you could be equal?”). Power creates his strongest moments when carving out incisive caricatures—as when he imagines a busload of church deacons turned vigilante, or when he sends up a young “freestyle queen” happily oblivious to the world outside her personal rhythm.

Flow testifies more to Power’s stage charisma than to his depth as a dramatist, leaving you more taken with the teller than the tale. Though the segments are framed with riffs on the number seven, they are mainly held together by his positive state of mind, an irrepressible performance infusing griot-style narrative with a freshly energized beat. There’s nothing wrong with that. As Power affirms, “Use the stories that you know and just flow.”