Mary Zimmerman is good, but she’s no Leonardo, and nothing in “The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci,” a postmodern grab-bag of visual effects, elicits the sense of awe that a single drawing by the Renaissance master can provoke in a viewer. For that matter, none of the images conjured for this stylized treatment of da Vinci’s writings has the startling impact of that 30-foot wading pool in Zimmerman’s award-winning “Metamorphoses.” Lacking a narrative, the piece is also more abstract than “Metamorphoses” — its beauty cool and intellectual rather than viscerally seductive.
The most enchanting moments of this diffuse ensemble piece emerge in its earlier stages, before the freshness and clarity of the imagery become overly tangled in complexity. Scott Bradley’s multifaceted set, softened to shades of old parchment in TJ Gerckens’ lighting design, offers an irresistible invitation to step into the magical workplace of da Vinci’s mind. Huge filing cabinets, stacked to the skylight, serve as stairs, ladders, and occasional chairs. When pulled open, they reveal all manner of wonders, from the caged birds that Leonardo would buy in the marketplace (for 6 lire, according to one journal entry) and release in the hills to the freshly dead corpse of an old woman destined for his dissection table.
At some point — certainly by the time three drawers of rocks are pulled out to illustrate some abstract principle of the painter’s art — the jack-in-the-box stagecraft loses its magic and begins to feel contrived.
In selecting excerpts from the 5,000 or so existing pages of the notebooks that Leonardo left behind when he died, Zimmerman doesn’t necessarily choose for dramatic content. She might have made more, for instance, of the artist’s astonishing insight into the diversity of mankind: “Who would believe that so small a space could contain all the images of the universe.” Or put some feeling into his anguished cry “And if there is no love, what then?” instead of making it a footnote to a mechanical illustration of the physiological distinctions between laughing and weeping.
Part of the problem has to do with the acting limitations of the ensemble players who collectively play Leonardo and share the notebook readings. While no one member can be said to own the role, Christopher Donahue engages the artist as a character and puts the most human face on him. And Doug Hara (who blithely paddled around on that yellow raft in “Metamorphoses”) can be counted on to find the humor in any given line.
But the company is clearly most comfortable with the more acrobatic aspects of their physical roles in this performance piece. Free to swing and climb and dance and commit mime in Mara Blumenfeld’s sumptuous costumes (more Victorian than Renaissance and not in the least Italian), they live for the movement of the moment to define Leonardo’s aesthetic theories on perspective, light and shadow and the proportions of the human body. Dancers Paul Oakley Stovall and Mariann Mayberry (who were featured in the original 1993 production at the Goodman) are mesmerizing in an acrobatic sequence illustrating the principles of weight. And the entire company boldly assembles itself into a living painting to show the lines of perspective that guided Leonardo’s eye.
One basic aesthetic principle — enough is enough — still eludes Zimmerman, who has plenty of imagination but indulges it beyond the point where it serves Leonardo and his work — or an audience’s endurance.