- The first thing you should realize is that Mary Zimmerman’s “The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci” is not a play. We call it a play because it has a script, actors and is produced in a theater. But it has nothing resembling a narrative arc, though it does reveal many details about Leonardo’s life and mind. If it was performed in a museum, we would call it performance art. If on another kind of stage, we’d call it dance. If in a tent, we’d call it circus. It is all of these things.
- This is a cast that is treated interchangeably in the work. All, at various times, are Leonardo. Many play his servant-model Giacomo/Salai, too. Sometimes they change character in the same scene, if not the same sentence. They must act, sing, dance, be acrobats and display strength.
- The script is a mere forty-three pages. Most scripts translate approximately to a minute a page on stage. On stage, this show runs eighty-five minutes, without intermission. This is because the actors bring Leonardo’s words to a new life, often through the creation of dramatic visual tableaux. You will see, for example, “Vitruvian Man” brought to life, but you might not even notice, as there will be so much happening on the stage.
- Leonardo painted the most famous tableau in history, “The Last Supper.” If it was addressed here, I did not notice. Nor was the “Mona Lisa,” Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or Dan Brown.
- The words are drawn entirely from Da Vinci’s notebooks and other writings. Depending on the source, Leonardo left behind somewhere between 6,000 and 28,000 pages of observations and sketches, in fifty different notebooks. The originals are owned by museums around the world, plus Bill Gates. As noted, Zimmerman distilled all of this into forty-three cohesive pages.
- Though only forty-three pages of material are enacted over eighty-five minutes, you will often not understand things. That is because many of the passages or observations of nature would require several minutes or more, each, to comprehend.
- Dialogue is occasionally in Italian, because Da Vinci was Italian and wrote in his language. Most of you will not understand this, either.
- At some point in the production, the magnitude of Leonardo’s genius will hit you, and perhaps make you feel unproductive in your own life. He was, after all, the original Renaissance Man. He was mostly self-taught, driven by an unquenchable curiosity.
- Leonardo did not have Google or an iPhone but an actor does, in one scene. He uses it as a light for his face. We can see that as a metaphor, for knowledge is light.
- There is no other playwright-director, alive or dead, like Mary Zimmerman. She creates work that only her mind is capable of. This play was first produced at the Goodman in 1993, the same year that Lookingglass did her “Arabian Nights,” and established her as a creative genius. She won a MacArthur “genius” award five years later, in 1998. You might also consider that, while watching the show. It’s genius, both subject and playwright.
At the Goodman Theatre, 170 North Dearborn, through March 20.