Goodman Theatre Studio

“Feathers shall raise men even as they do birds, towards heaven,” wrote Leonardo da Vinci–though he meant the feathers on quill pens, with which people could write words and draw images. That was the closest human beings could come, he thought, to the physical freedom and spiritual aspiration of birds in flight. Like a monk seeking religious exaltation through the making of an illuminated manuscript, the 15th-century artist and engineer charted all kinds of observations and experiences in the 5,000-plus pages of his notebooks. Anatomical studies, precepts on painterly perspectives, philosophical aphorisms, diagrams and discussion of flying machines and armored cars (to “take the place of elephants,” he suggested), financial accounts and autobiographical anecdotes–Leonardo filled his journals with such stuff, some of it carefully organized and some of it scattered and impulsive. Just like you or I might do–except Leonardo’s notes expressed a creative and analytical genius most people can’t approach.

From this seemingly untheatrical source director Mary Zimmerman has fashioned a striking theater piece called, unabashedly, The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci. In this fluid, dreamlike, nonlinear work, Zimmerman offers not so much a visualization of the notebooks as her own response to them as a contemporary artist. Barely scratching the surface–how could she do more in just 90 intermissionless minutes?–she omits huge chunks of material, including Leonardo’s ideas about war (“bestial madness”) and its machinery. But by focusing on a few subjects–the painter’s preoccupation with light and shadow, the anatomist’s interest in weight and muscle structure, and the visionary’s fascination with flight–she provides an idiosyncratic take on the artist and intellectual who epitomized the Renaissance man.

Though one might reasonably expect sumptuous spectacle in such a show–Leonardo worked at some of the grandest courts in Europe–Notebooks is ascetically cool in look and attitude, with a visual and directorial cohesiveness that’s all too rare in Chicago theater. The Goodman Theatre’s small studio space has been turned into an artist’s studio that looks cramped at first but proves ingenious in its use of space. (“Small rooms . . . set the mind in the right path, large ones cause it to go astray,” said Leonardo; directors on Goodman’s main stage should take note.) The room, designed by Scott Bradley, has a broken skylight overhead, a large window overlooking a river winding into the mountains, and lots of file drawers–some of which are actual file drawers but most of which are something else altogether. One drawer turns into a field of hay to create a tableau of a girl in a meadow; another is a vault containing a body for dissection; another is a glassed-in curiosity case containing a fetus (inspired by one of Leonardo’s drawings). One tier of drawers drops down to become a staircase; another pulls out into a set of bars on which the actors–a fine-tuned ensemble of four women and four men, handsomely clad by Allison Reeds in costumes that evoke both the 1490s and the 1990s–can execute acrobatics to illustrate Leonardo’s descriptions of physical action.

Sometimes the movement (choreographed in a dry postmodernist vein by Zimmerman) literally reflects the text, sometimes not. A trio of actors execute autistically repetitive arm and hand movements while a narrator discusses muscle structure. A woman pulling away from a man’s amorous advances warns him that intellectual passion kills sensuality–a comment Leonardo surely wrote in a very different context. In another scene, one actor recounts the money Leonardo spent on his handsome apprentice, a knavish youth nicknamed Salai (“little devil”), while a young woman teases the actor with childish games. (Despite Leonardo’s probable homosexuality, male-male eroticism is studiously avoided here.)

Zimmerman sometimes directs her cast to affect quirky bemusement at the material, which produces some laughs but at her subject’s expense. This is where the show is least effective: the program indicates that all the actors play Leonardo, but in fact they’re all art students alternately honoring and mocking his work. A discourse on the superiority of painting over sculpture, for instance, is delivered with snotty pretension by one man as another adopts the pose of Michelangelo’s David; the joke, inspired by the rivalry between Leonardo and Michelangelo, misses its mark: Leonardo was very much a sculptor as well as a painter. In another segment one actor discusses the aerodynamics of birds while a woman, wearing a broken pair of wings like one of Leonardo’s flying machines, hoists herself in through the window, apparently after a crash, and crawls across the floor toward a pretty little bird in a cage. (Having caged birds onstage is distinctly contrary to the spirit of a man who was famous for buying caged birds in order to free them.)

But even with these flaws, The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci stands impressively apart from other productions in town, blending serious scholarship and disciplined artistry into very watchable entertainment. Unlike, say, City Lit Theater’s recent dramatization of Jean Cocteau’s memoiresque novel The White Paper, Zimmerman’s show proves that theatrical life and literary integrity are not mutually exclusive. And where another show about artistic and scientific genius, Steppenwolf’s Picasso at the Lapin Agile, focuses in sitcom fashion on invented incidents from Einstein’s and Picasso’s lives, Notebooks finds humor and humanity in the actual work of Leonardo da Vinci.


Pegasus Players

What an interesting way to commemorate the 30th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s murder: produce a musical comedy about the man blamed for his death. It’s so original! So hiply dark! So radical chic! And, considering the competitive, overstocked theater market, no one else is going to try it!

Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman’s Assassins, a revue about presidential assailants, starts out in a carnival shooting gallery, where a carousel calliope huffs out “Hail to the Chief” in sardonic waltz time. The setting is apt, unfortunately: none of the people whose exploits the show attempts to dramatize is ever anything more than a two-dimensional cardboard target. Claiming to be less interested in politics than personality, Sondheim and Weidman try to create characters, but they settle for characteristics–with emphasis on the tics. They offer this array of madmen, malcontents, and morons–linked by their access to handguns and willingness to use them–as some sort of warped microcosm of America’s pursuit of happiness. “Everybody’s got the right to be happy,” warbles the carny barker as he peddles his pistols. “Everybody’s got the right to their dreams.”

Weidman’s lame script–which alternates between National Lampoon-style outrageousness and political proselytizing–tries to put forth as some sort of counterculture unto themselves a group of deranged loners: John Wilkes Booth (only 27 when he killed Lincoln), Charles Guiteau (who killed President Garfield), Leon Czolgosz (President McKinley’s murderer), Giuseppe Zangara (who knocked off Chicago’s Mayor Cermak while trying to shoot Franklin Roosevelt), Squeaky Fromme and Sara Jane Moore (who both missed Gerald Ford), Samuel Byck (who planned to crash an airplane into the Nixon White House), John Hinckley (who injured Ronald Reagan and crippled James Brady), and Lee Harvey Oswald, whose dubious guilt in Kennedy’s death goes unquestioned here. “This is the real conspiracy,” Booth tells Oswald in this time-warping comedy, gesturing at the others. But the script never delivers anything more than a collection of unconnected stereotypes, relying on simple-minded rationalizations for the unbalanced shooters’ actions: misguided patriotism (Booth), misguided sexual infatuation (Hinckley, Fromme), leftist beliefs (Czolgosz), indigestion (Zangara), etc.

Sondheim’s score is a proficient pastiche but distinctly unmemorable. Trying to compose an all-American musical tapestry, he employs Wild West balladeering and ends up sounding like the theme song of a 1950s Walt Disney historical drama; vaudeville, and ends up sounding like his own Follies; and Elton John pop on Hinckley and Fromme’s love ballad to their absent inspirations, Jodie Foster and Charlie Manson. None of it conveys any sense that Sondheim is empathizing with the characters, a key element in his best work. In fact these songs all sound like Sondheim was writing down to his audience–keeping his distance from the show, which, given the quality of Weidman’s script, he should.

Victoria Bussert, who staged revelatory revivals of Sondheim’s Pacific Overtures and Anyone Can Whistle for Pegasus Players, directs a production that’s smooth but too shallow to uncover whatever merit may lie beneath the work’s alienated surface. The actors sing well enough under the reliable musical direction of Jeff Lewis, who also leads the small offstage orchestra. But their efforts can’t give life to this stillborn mistake. Having much more in common with the flaky Fromme than with the deadly accurate marksmen who killed Kennedy, Assassins misfires.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Liz Lauren.