NEW YORK -- Call it Cirque du Soleil for eggheads.
Mary Zimmerman's "The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci" isn't a production of the Canadian circus troupe, but it uses da Vinci's writings as the basis for some Cirque-style gymnastics and outrageous costumes. There are actors hanging upside down from poles, long-beaked bird masks and stunning set pieces.
But this being off-Broadway (Second Stage Theatre, to be exact), the antics aren't just spectacle - they mean something. The result is a theater experience that's both thrilling and enriching.
Zimmerman's script consists almost entirely of excerpts from da Vinci's copious notebooks (5,000 pages survive, according to production notes). They don't give much insight into da Vinci as a man, but they do shed considerable light on his hyperactive mind.
The topics range from biology to dreams, and of course there's plenty of material about art - including how to paint shadows, clothing and human bodies. Sample passage: "You must not give to drapery a great confusion of many folds, but rather introduce only those held by the hands or arms."
Da Vinci comes across mostly as a pedantic intellectual, but there's evidence he had a soulful side, too. One excerpt tells of how he liked to buy songbirds from the marketplace and release them in the hills.
Accompanying the text - read by eight actors in various combinations - are Zimmerman's ingenious visuals.
One of the most striking sequences offers da Vinci's thoughts on weight, which he called one of the four "powers of Nature."
Mariann Mayberry and Paul Oakley Stovall perform an athletic dance to his words, lifting each other in the air and intertwining their bodies so they look like a primitive, two-headed statue.
Another stunner devised by Zimmerman and set designer Scott Bradley has the actors hooking strings across the stage to represent da Vinci's perspective diagrams. Against this backdrop, four performers replicate da Vinci's painting "Madonna on the Rocks," with strings stretching from their ears to show the direction of their gaze.
Flanking the stage are massive filing drawers from which various actors and objects emerge - including (believe it or not) a wheat field, a pond and live birds.
Zimmerman won a Tony Award in 2002 for "Metamorphoses," a play that used a huge wading pool as its centerpiece. Water makes a few cameo appearances here, including a sequence in which an actress demonstrates the ripple effect. She does while teetering on a catwalk above the stage with a watering can.
In some scenes, there's so much happening that the effect is overwhelming: You don't know what to focus on. But that may be meant to reflect da Vinci's aphorism - read early in the play - that "in one instant we see infinite forms (but) understand only one thing at a time."
Inability to focus, incidentally, was one of the defining aspects of da Vinci's own life. He had so many interests - as his notebooks show - that he had trouble finishing projects. He left behind several incomplete paintings and many half-formed (though revolutionary) theories.
Zimmerman's production doesn't try to polish the rough spots in his work, presenting his thoughts in all their scattershot glory. That's wise of her, because the most enchanting acrobatics in this play turn out to be those of da Vinci's mind.
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