Director/writer Mary Zimmerman contends that the word notebooks in the title of the play The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci is something of a misnomer.
"They're more like just pages, with a drawing of an angel next to a scientific formula, with shopping lists next to meditations on weeping," said Zimmerman, also a professor of theatre at Northwestern University in Chicago where she has premiered many of her works, including Notebooks and Journey to the West (at the Goodman Theatre), and where she has directed and adapted Arabian Nights and The Odyssey at the Steppenwolf studio as an ensemble member of the Lookingglass Theatre. (Indeed, Arabian Nights is touring, recently at L.A.'s Actors Gang Space and soon to be at the Brooklyn Academy of Music Nov. 22-23, while Notebooks will be at Chicago's Goodman Dec. 15-Jan. 11.)
Preparing a production of the Notebooks for the Seattle Rep, where it will play through Nov. 29, Zimmerman described the piece in which eight actors use music, dance, spoken word, theatrical images and props to enliven the da Vinci text as "dreamlike as if you'd fallen asleep reading the notebooks late at night and all these images tumbled through your mind. It's not biographical, and I'm not editorializing. I'm just harmonizing with the texts."
Appropriately enough, da Vinci's dream of a falcon visiting him in his cradle in infancy which Sigmund Freud once famously analyzed in an essay is included, but the director sees the stunning imagery more as an annunciation of genius than as the prefigurations of homosexuality drawn by the father of psychoanalysis. But by the same token, she totally agrees with Freud's celebration of da Vinci as the ultimate Renaissance Man, paraphrasing his description of the artist/scientist with his futuristic inventions and timeless art as "someone who had awakened earlier than the rest of us who were still in the dark, asleep.
"He is least known as a writer, and yet the notebooks are innately theatrical and surreal," said Zimmerman, adding that da Vinci was also a costume and set designer who loved to stage courtly spectaculars for his wealthy patrons. "He once flooded a palace ballroom in a foot of water to float a flotilla of boats to represent a battle. He had this dramatic flair, so it is not surprising this would also affect his writings."
That theatricality is explored in Zimmerman's vignettes, which play with the contradictions in the text, so that a woman in scientific garb stands at a blackboard explaining why a spirit cannot speak, while at the same time, in the background, a woman sings the World War II song, "We'll Meet Again," a spirit speaking.
The beauty and melancholy of that scene suffuses the entire play, an ache which Zimmerman said was evident throughout the writings. For, as certain as da Vinci was of his own genius, he nonetheless thought of himself as a "failure." "Even he knew that he was woefully inadequate for explaining what life is really like," she said. "It's a melancholy ache that finally must admit the experience of the human heart is not describable." -- By Patrick Pacheco