Like the smallscreen “Tudors” and “Borgias,” “Divine Rivalry” filters contemporary thoughts about aesthetics, power and statecraft through the lens of bygone backroom shenanigans, this time those of Renaissance Florence and an inspired-by-real-life artistic competition. The Old Globe production is nowhere near as provocative or lucid as the plays of Alan Bennett and Peter Shaffer, who have a particular facility for the ironic historical parallel. But helmer Michael Wilson’s staging is handsomely sparked by digital visual legerdemain and, within its narrow limits, it’s quite enjoyable.
In one corner, wearing fetching silks, is Leonardo da Vinci (Miles Anderson), cranky visionary fresh from his Last Supper triumph and a proponent of the subtly ambiguous in art. (There’s this portrait of a lady he’s working on, for instance; is she smiling in it, or isn’t she?) And in the other corner, in brown sackcloth, God’s man-at-the-easel Michelangelo Buonarroti (Euan Morton), his newly unveiled David celebrating ultrarealism.
By order of the newly established Florentine Republic, each genius will celebrate a past civic military triumph in fresco or oils on side-by-side palace panels. The real winner, if he plays his cards right, will be Niccolo Machiavelli (Sean Lyons), upstart plebe, who hopes to use the patriotic tableaux as a stepping stone toward a Florentine citizen army and his own personal glory.
Don’t expect much of the subtly ambiguous in the writing of Michael Kramer “with” (odd credit) D.S. Moynihan. The dialogue is full of dropped names (Cesare Borgia, Raphael) and coy allusions to political concepts that invite auds to apply them to our own time. There’s even a wink-wink reference to a “Da Vinci code.” None of it amounts to much dramatically, though it keeps the audience amused and feeling smart.
The acting, too, demonstrates style without substance, leisure without urgency. Lyons is too busy preening, and head of state Soderini (David Selby) working his old-man crotchets, to create a fully realized mentor/student relationship. They also fall short of carrying the plot’s high stakes. It’s all well and good to spout darkly, “Our situation has never been more precarious,” but if the thesps don’t believe in their gut that “war threatens from every quarter,” auds can’t be expected to do so, either.
Anderson and Morton are good with a quip, but their voices and personalities are too similar to bring out the contrasts Kramer and Moynihan intend.
Still, “Divine Rivalry” diverts and never bores, in some measure because of the dazzling physical production. Peter Nigrini’s filmic prologue orients theatergoers to the backstory, while animated pen-and-ink work provides a glimpse into the creative mind as scenes shift. David C. Woolard’s costumes are lush against Jeff Cowie’s imposing sets, and if Wilson’s staging had half the excitement of John Gromada’s music, auds would be on the edge of their seats throughout, instead of pleasantly leaning back in them.