Plays about art are fraught with peril. Plays about genius also offer special challenges. Plays about both — such as “Divine Rivalry,” receiving its world preem at Hartford Stage — offer double difficulties here that stymie scribe Michael Kramer and helmer Michael Wilson. What promises to be a juicy untold tale of intrigue, inspiration and ego unfolds as a Renaissance primer, stuffed with enough research to fill a mini-series.
Script centers on the commissioning of side-by-side murals by established great Leonardo da Vinci (Peter Strauss) and up-and-coming master Michelangelo (Aaron Krohn), orchestrated by Niccolo Machiavelli (Scott Parkinson) and overseen by Florence’s head of state Piero Soderini (Simon Jones). But lacking among the historical facts and famous figures is a sense of this play’s own artistic soul.
Kramer — a noted political journalist new to the stage — crams as much as he can into the play’s under two-hour length: the history of an emerging Republic, Papal politics and the power structure of Florence. And that’s only the first scene.
Some incidents are tantalizingly mentioned, only to be dropped (sodomy charges against Leonardo, Michelangelo’s more discrete homosexuality) while thematic ideas lack in-depth follow-though (Michelangelo’s faith, Leonardo’s philosophy).
In Kramer’s envisioning of the real-life 1504 event, the murals have significant political import — a means to Machiavelli’s end in giving Florence a sense of patriotism and pride in order to meet his goal of mounting a homegrown army to battle emerging threats. But this political agenda is neither convincing or compelling.
For the two artists, however, the meaning of the commission is less focused. Certainly there’s artistic one-upmanship — always good for a chuckle or two — between the young turk of a sculptor and the great lion of a painter (who is also consumed with his many inventions and experiments).
Kramer has the two masters amusingly riff on each other’s work but the competing artistic points of view don’t connect to a bigger picture.
Script and direction strike a tone that is almost unrelentingly light. There’s a running gag about Michelangelo’s inability to draw horses, and Machiavelli takes bureaucratic glee when he says, “Nothing delights people like a big project.” Sometimes the dialogue becomes coy, as when Soderini warns Machiavelli, “But don’t try to manipulate me.”
When the work wanders into more serious territory, the lines are often banal. “The ambiguity is its beauty,” says Leonardo of Mona Lisa’s smile, as if reading from a docent’s spiel.
Perfs are professionally polished but stuck in first gear with Strauss going for the gusto as Leonardo and Krohn petulant as Michelangelo. Parkinson tries his best not to become “the adjective” Machiavelli — and almost succeeds. Jones is an assured hand as Soderini.
The play receives sumptuous production values. Jeff Cowie designs an elegant series of courts, halls and artists’ studios. David C.Woolard’s costumes establish each character’s class and status. John Gromada’s original music and sound, together with Robert Wierzel’s lighting, convey place, time and mood. Most stunning is Peter Nigrini’s shifting, swirling projections that inform through suggestion.