at the Lookingglass Theatre

May 18-20

Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks, which have been published in a variety of translations and editions, survive as a series of fragments, momentary glimpses into an unfathomably inquisitive mind. The notebooks’ entries, with such titles as “Arousing the Mind to Various Inventions,” “Of Dreaming,” and “How to Represent a Man in Despair,” are captivating not only because of their lucidity and passion but because of their brevity. They’re flashes of insight that almost scream for further investigation.

Adapting such a text for the stage obviously presents enormous challenges. The notebook entries are not unified, and their inherent unevenness means that some fragments will enlighten and others will fail to engage. The same is true of Mary Zimmerman’s original theater piece, The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci, an intelligent, ingeniously staged, and carefully styled work. Although at times aloof and nearly impenetrable, it has moments of serene beauty and powerful insight.

Notebooks is performed by an eight-member cast in an intimate black room, handsomely lit by Mark Hager. The five women (Emilie Beck, Laura Eason, Ana K. Gasteyer, Tracy Walsh, and Meredith Zinner) are in 50s cocktail dresses, the three men (Mark Brodie, Tim Ereneta, and Philip R. Smith) in vintage sharkskin suits. The performers either read sections from the notebooks at freestanding microphones placed around the stage or perform enigmatic, ritualistic, at times brutally physical actions designed to accompany the text. The soundscape for the piece, by Eric Huffman, consists of electronic tones, percussion, and various mechanical sounds; it’s so subtle and delicate as to almost disappear into the very air of the theater, enhancing the mesmerizing spell cast by Zimmerman and her performers.

The piece begins with a hypnotic image: a woman wearing a golden bird’s beak (Walsh) sits atop a ladder staring at an opaque window. She slowly descends the ladder and crosses to two men sleeping side by side on the floor (Brodie and Smith). As the woman delicately brushes them with a long feather, a man stationed at one of the microphones (Ereneta) quietly announces, “This is to be an assortment”–a collection brought together by a single sensibility rather than by a single theme or story. This calm, measured opening not only establishes a lovely warmth but also encourages the viewer to surrender certain expectations of the theater–plot, character, conflict–and to apprehend the performance instead as the slow accumulation of images, very much like a dream.

Zimmerman’s selections from da Vinci’s notebooks center around a passionate obsession to know the body–to discover it in all its details, to understand its intricate proportions, and to accurately represent it. As the piece continues and text follows text–da Vinci seems to try to equate the forces of nature with human passion, saying “Where there is greater weight, there is greater desire”–the texts become lonely and desperate, demonstrating a consuming quest for answers to a question never asked. Da Vinci seems obsessed with examining the body in its every detail as if that examination would necessarily reveal some metaphysical truth. But the nature of that truth seems to elude him.

This dynamic–the intense scrutiny of an object but without clarifying the reason for the scrutiny–becomes the emotional core of the performance, startlingly embodied in the performers. The performers constantly interact, continually meet, sometimes in an elegantly silly way–performers always shake hands or nod “hello” before they start a scene–and sometimes in a shockingly physical way. Bodies often collide or cling desperately together. But in all these exchanges, the performers never register any psychological reaction, never acknowledge one another. In one section, two strolling men (Brodie and Smith) carry on an “adult” conversation about golf, sotto voce. Every few seconds, a woman suddenly flings herself onto one of the men, like so much mud splashed on him by a passing bus. The woman subsequently falls off, without the man paying this violent interruption the least attention or even breaking his stride.

This almost inhuman reserve seems the perfect reversal of da Vinci’s quest to understand the human body. Here were human bodies, doing things that I thought I recognized but that elicited no response from the participants. Were they angry? Desperate? Indifferent? Did anyone understand anyone else’s point of view? Were these performers the same characters throughout the piece, or was personality fluid? This captivating and elusive style of acting, which the performers had thoroughly taken to heart, made it impossible to draw conclusions from the empirical evidence before us. Discovering a truth through observation of the body was hopeless, because the performers refused to reveal themselves to us.

In another section, a man and a woman (Smith and Zinner) sit facing each other in chairs. Every time the woman stands up to leave, the man pulls her back. This begins tenderly and then slowly increases in intensity, until both are sprawled on the floor, with the man obsessively wrenching the woman about and the woman crashing into him with terrifying force. Throughout this exchange, which is horrifyingly extended, both participants seem entirely detached, even uninterested. They are not robotic or mechanical but somehow emptied, as if their bodies understood but their faces and voices had been turned off. Moments like this were grotesquely passionless. It was almost impossible to recognize these people as human, engaging in such humiliation as if it weren’t even happening to them.

This completely cool–even, at times, cold–aesthetic, while sometimes frustrating and alienating, did give the piece an almost debilitating sadness. A painful and sweet melancholy hovered about the work, as if the most the performers could hope for in their quest for understanding was a kind of complacent isolation. This notion was beautifully encapsulated in a section called “Anatomy and Autopsy,” in which a woman in a green velvet dress (Gasteyer) sleeps on an elevated horizontal mirror. While a man’s voice is heard reading a text describing the dissection of animals, a second man (Brodie) in a white lab coat methodically cuts the seam of the woman’s dress with surgical scissors, and then peels the flaps of fabric back with enormous silver forceps to reveal her white slip. While this chilling activity takes place, a woman’s voice is heard repeating, “Great love springs from great knowledge of the beloved object. And if you little know it, you’ll be able to love it only little, or not at all.”

This powerful scene explodes with associations: knowledge-as-love, juxtaposed with knowledge-as-dissection (and possibly as destruction); the exposure of the internals as an impossible attempt to understand the whole; the man’s knowledge/love of the woman expressed as a clinical autopsy. As a perfect finish to this scene, the man opens the woman’s mouth, reaches in with his forceps, and pulls out a delicate purple blossom. It is as if he has removed from her some vital essence, some profound and revelatory secret, and yet a secret that will remain encoded, insulated against human inquiry forever. It is in a sense the encapsulation of passion, which stands apart from science and renders it absurd.

Most successful about this sequence is its thrilling combination of text and action. Other moments, however, are constrained by an unfocused relationship between text and performance. At times the relationship is disappointingly literal, as the performers seem to simply demonstrate some physical property described in the text. At other times, the performance and the text seem to have nothing to do with each other. And some sections, hampered by what seemed a burdensome amount of text, are muffled, without the clarity and specificity that make a dream meaningful though devoid of logic.

Certainly Zimmerman has given herself an enormously difficult task, both in terms of the text she chose to adapt for the stage and in the kind of theatrical vocabulary she’s used to explore it. The demands placed on her actors are also formidable, and the performances were generally controlled, intelligent, and committed. Sometimes, however, I felt that the performers were unable to fulfill the expressive needs of Zimmerman’s direction, with its focus on the body. At other times, I felt that more mature performers (all were in their early 20s) would have stretched Zimmerman’s ideas into more provocative realms.

Notebooks seemed more an experiment than a finished product–it’s a bit diffuse, with certain sections not as thoroughly explored as others. The biggest frustration was watching a potentially powerful image being formed and then dissipating before it had had a chance to communicate. An example is the Madonna and child tableau, in which black strings connect the performers’ eyes and the point of their gaze. The strings are then snipped, but it’s not an image we’re allowed to savor or that reaches any culmination. But Notebooks is nonetheless a thrilling experiment, an exciting, mystifying, and always beautiful journey through a densely populated psychological landscape.