First performed by Lookingglass in 1989 (with Ana Gasteyer in the original cast) and then in an expanded run at the now-gone Goodman studio theater in 1993, adapter/director Mary Zimmerman’s The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci is one of the landmark productions in Chicago theater history: long before she won the MacArthur “genius” grant and a Tony Award, the show announced that Zimmerman was in the vanguard of Chicago theatermakers pushing back against the gritty realism that had long defined new work in town. Her style favored a strong physical and visual vocabulary, and as her mentor at Northwestern, Frank Galati (She Always Said, Pablo), had done before her, she and her collaborators sought inspiration in nontheatrical texts, rendered without regard to linear narrative structure. “This is to be a collection without order,” we’re warned at the beginning of the show.
The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci Through 3/20: Tue-Wed 7:30 PM, Thu 2 and 7:30 PM, Fri 8 PM, Sat 2 and 8 PM, Sun 2 PM; ASL interpreted performance Fri 3/11, 8 PM; touch tour and audio described performance, Sat 3/12, 2 PM (touch tour at 12:30 PM); open-captioned performance Sat 3/19, 2 PM; Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn, 312-443-3800, goodmantheatre.org, $15-$55.
The revival of Notebooks now onstage at the Goodman’s Owen theater feels both nostalgic and of-the-moment. That’s appropriate for the da Vinci we meet here, who is obsessed with paradoxes and binaries, especially light and shadow (brilliantly anatomized in T.J. Gerckens’s light design), and whose firing-on-all-gears brain seems to spill out of the oversized filing cabinets/climbing walls that line Scott Bradley’s set, like Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler’s mixed-up files on steroids. The contrast between the gracefulness of a falcon who haunts an early dream and the failure of da Vinci’s own flying machine is played for laughs, but highlights the chasm between human dreams of dominance and our inability to fully integrate our desires with the natural world.
Zimmerman’s brand of storytelling has become far more commonplace than it was 30 years ago (in part thanks to the success she found after Notebooks with more familiar texts such as Ovid’s Metamorphoses). Some sections feel a bit arid and academic. But overall, da Vinci’s meditations on force, weight, perspective, and so much more still have the power to move and intrigue us, and Zimmerman’s eight-member cast (which includes one vet of the first production, Charles Donahue) brings grace, fluidity, wit, and sometimes aching poignancy to this kaleidoscopic portrait of a polymath.