Review: Art Comes to Life in The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci at Goodman Theatre

The Goodman Theatre’s remounting of Mary Zimmerman’s landmark and career-launching work The Notebooks of Leonardo Da Vinci is as wondrous as it was in 1993. Highly visual and incorporating a visceral movement vocabulary, it is a work that speaks to the senses and the intellect.  However, if you think you are going to the Goodman’s Owen Theatre to see a “play” with a plot and a conflict, you may be confused.  Let go of all expectations of linear narrative, release definitions and genres, and you will be delighted and amazed. This 90 minutes without intermission literally brings the voluminous notebooks of this genius to life and it is an experience like no other.

Leonardo Da Vinci (1452-1519) is the definition of Renaissance Man: known for his painting, his scientific explorations, his military engineering accomplishments, his discoveries in botany and biology, with a mind as curious and wide ranging as any human has ever had. Thus this work dips into a vast array of topics without a definable chronology or outline. The show is impressionistic, with a vague circular structure, beginning and ending with the sound of wings beating and a woman dressed in brocades and a bird mask. Every single person on stage: three women, five men, is Leonardo. Mostly in English but occasionally in Italian, the actors quote primarily from Da Vinci’s musings on topics ranging from honorable work to learning how to die. There are riddles. There is humor, both in words and movements. This ensemble is charming and meaningful.

Photo by Liz Lauren.

But the star of the play is the set. Designed by Scott Bradley, this intricate work of ever-evolving art starts out looking like a sophisticated jungle gym framed by an elaborate filing system. This live art piece proceeds to unfold throughout the work into marvels: one drawer is filled with water and lit from above, and fills the stage with waves. One set of drawers becomes a staircase. A drawer pulls out to reveal the famous fetus in utero. At one moment the actors unwind strings and clip them into hidden clips to delineate a classic perspective demonstration. Images literally pull out and then get closed into a drawer as we move on. A cage with live finches is revealed. A bridge is built from sticks. Each moment is filled with surprise.

The work concludes with an expansion into universality, noting everything is related to everything and then we are in darkness, eyelids filled with imagery and minds filled with deep thought as we head out into the cold of winter. It is astonishing and beautiful and meaningful.

The Notebooks of Leonardo Da Vinci is playing Tuesday through Sunday until March 20, at the intimate Owen Theatre at the Goodman Theatre, 170 N Dearborn St. Tickets are $15-$50. You can also buy streaming tickets for $25 to view the show at home. For more information, go to https://www.goodmantheatre.org/Notebooks where you can also find information about accessible performances with special services including audio description, ASL interpretation and open-captioned performances. You can also call the box office at 312-443-3800.

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Angela Allyn

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