When I first reviewed Mary Zimmerman’s “The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci” — gulp, some 19 years ago — it felt like witnessing a Chicago theater revolution. Not only was Zimmerman’s quixotic work not the staging of a play, it also wasn’t an adaptation of a novel or a poem or even some piece of nonfiction prose. Instead, Zimmerman had somehow found a way to theatricalize the elliptical jottings of a famed Renaissance artist: a series of eccentric, first-draft musings that even the author claimed had no innate cohesion.
She made this beautiful thing out of that?, I remember thinking
Inevitably, this reprise at the Goodman Theatre does not pack the same kind of punch. That’s partly because this new staging seems somehow smaller (especially at the finale, dealing with the exquisite aesthetic properties of perspective), although that might be a trick of both two different spaces and a fading memory. But it’s also because Zimmerman, a hugely influential stage director, kept on working, pushing the boundaries of what can and should be theatricalized and exhibiting her singular intellectual curiosity, even as those influenced by her work began to compete for attention.
So what grabs you now at this seminal work?
It’s the power of the original material and, more specifically, the timely reminder of how the great minds of the European Renaissance were not forced (as are we) into specific compartments of discipline. You likely know da Vinci as the painter of the Mona Lisa. But his notebooks deal with (and I scribbled down these words as the topics came up in the show) art, love, physics, psychology, aesthetics, anatomy, nature, physiology, geometry and theology.
Among others. As da Vinci himself noted, the subjects of the world are many. What a mistake we now make by insisting so often and so early on specialization of our young! What connections we miss. What a mistake we make by resorting to Google when we could be working on our understanding of how force drives everything, how everything changes into something else, how beauty can exist in a series of straight lines, how art and precision do not belong in different rooms, hallways, buildings or minds.
More simply put, the polymathic mind of da Vinci has reasserted itself over theatrical invention; Zimmerman would surely see that as a fine thing.
One of the thing I’ve found when shows return after long gaps is that older creators often are wiser and their work yet more resonant. That was true with, say, Ruben Santiago-Hudson in “Lackawanna Blues” on Broadway and it’s the case here with the emotionally rich actor Christopher Donahue, who most notably plays the Leonardo authorial voice and who is a veteran Zimmerman collaborator, now across decades. He’s now joined by the actors Christiana Clark, Adeoye, Kasey Foster, Cruz Gonzalez-Cadel, John Gregorio, Wai Yim and Anthony Irons, a live-wire actor who ignites the production whenever he steps on stage. It’s an experienced cast from the world of Zimmerman and their work is adept, bright and potent. Everyone is playing da Vinci. Which makes sense.
As is her longtime wont, Zimmerman works again with her regular design crew of T.J. Gerckens, Mara Blumenfeld and Michael Bodeen; set designer Scott Bradley has re-created his now-famous design for this show, wherein the da Vinci landscape emerges from drawers in an enormous filing cabinet, not unlike his great mind.
Zimmerman’s great obsession, of course, is transformation. Fans of “The Arabian Nights,” “Metamorphoses,” “The Odyssey,” “Argonautika” and most of her other self-adapted compositions know this well. If you see this particular show (and you should), you’ll find here the theoretical and intellectual underpinning of what came later to Chicago, to Broadway, to New York’s Metropolitan Opera.
It is still, in its small way, a revelation.
Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.
Review: “The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci”
When: Through March 20
Where: Owen Theatre at the Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St.
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes
Tickets: $20-$50 at 312-443-3800 and www.goodmantheatre.org