Ancient texts inspire modern art

Playwright draws on Leonardo da Vinci's notebooks for her newest work

Mary Zimmerman has always been drawn to legendary figures and ancient myths. In her career as an award-winning playwright and director, she has adapted many classic texts: Ovid's stories of transformation in "Metamorphoses," Odysseus's epic journey in "The Odyssey," and Scheherezade's beguiling tales in "Arabian Nights."

This weekend, audiences attending Second Stage Theatre's revival of "The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci" will be able to delve into the mind of one of the most famous geniuses of all time. In a playfully inventive combination of words, music, and acrobatics, Dr. Zimmerman brings the Renaissance artist and thinker to life on the stage.

The Chicago-based director took her portrayal of Leonardo from his notebooks, the more than 5,000 surviving pages of his writings, sketches, notes, and lists.

"They're just his jottings, what was in his head at the moment," says Zimmerman in a phone interview, describing them as "authentic" and "unfiltered." They fascinated her because of their language, which seems to suggest multiple metaphorical meanings beneath the surface: "Take, for example, one of his scientific statements - 'Force is only the desire for flight, force lives by violence and dies from liberty.' It's as much a statement of philosophy as it is of science."

Zimmerman's innovative stage adaptations have garnered much attention and praise from audiences and critics - "Metamorphoses" became a surprise Broadway hit, winning its creator a 2002 Tony Award for Best Director. Yet Leonardo's notebooks presented a special challenge. They contain no story, no narrative arc, and very little personal information. In order to stage the notebooks, Zimmerman needed to create a structure.

What emerged was an "emotional arc" that carries the story of his life, "from childhood to death and everything in between," she says. This structure began to form in graduate school, when Zimmerman wrote the original version of the play. She subsequently reworked the material for its first professional production at The Goodman Theatre in Chicago, where the play gained its set: floor-to-ceiling file cabinets ingeniously filled with props.

For subsequent productions, she continued to modify parts of the script. This is how Zimmerman has always worked, taking inspiration from the members of her cast. "You want to use what people are good at doing," she explains. "I want to make my plays for them."

All eight actors in "The Notebooks," both men and women, are called upon to play Leonardo. "He really is such an outsized personality," says Zimmerman, citing his humor and gentle nature in addition to his "phenomenal dual passion, his scientific passion for describing the world and his pictorial passion for showing the world." Building on two of the only childhood memories in his notebooks - an encounter with a falcon, and another with the mouth of a cave - the play suggests he was aware of both the divine gift of his own genius and the drive of his curiosity.

The production also tries to imitate the artist's incredible creative energy by staging several events at the same time.

"A single page of his notebooks can contain a design for a church, a shopping list, the face of an old man, an idea for an invention, and a quote of philosophy," says Zimmerman. "Just like a page of the notebooks, one moment on the stage can contain random and contradictory things."

She confesses to having her own "dual desire" to show in addition to tell. In one scene, for example, two actors perform an extended series of acrobatic feats while one of them recites passages about weight and force. In another, the cast re-creates "Madonna of the Rocks," illustrating the painter's masterly control of perspective by constructing a diagram with several lines of string.

"The entire play really points toward the making of that tableau," she says. "His combined passions and skills - they all come together in that work of art."

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