Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci
Christopher Donahue and Kasey Foster in The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci at Shakespeare Theatre Company; Credit: Scott Suchman

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Asking if Mary Zimmerman is a playwright, an opera director, or a performance artist is like asking if Leonard da Vinci was a physicist or a painter. 

That the arts and sciences—to say nothing of the various subdisciplines of each—are more interconnected than they might seem is the in-itself reductive takeaway of The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci, a remarkable feat of translation and imagination that Zimmerman first staged in 1993. In the intervening decades she’s won a Tony Award for her adaptation of Ovid’s two-millennia-old epic poem Metamorphoses (a production Arena Stage revived in 2013), directed four productions for the Metropolitan Opera, and helmed an inevitably controversial version of The Jungle Book that drew equally from Rudyard Kipling’s short stories and the 1967 Disney animated feature they begat. But whether or not you’ve followed Zimmerman’s remarkable career—itself a testament to the potential rewards of interdisciplinary exploration—the opportunity to see one of her seminal works so lovingly revived in a co-production between Shakespeare Theatre Company and the Goodman Theatre, its original home, is not to be missed.

The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci is “a collection without order,” we’re told, wherein a company of five men and three women, each of whom is identified in the program as playing “Leonardo,” offer a series of vignettes Zimmerman has built from excerpts of his scribblings, united only by his rapacious curiosity. Topics include anatomy, theology, geometry, sculpture versus painting, the nature of weight and strength (an oration during which the petite speaker, Andrea San Miguel, holds her much larger castmate Adeoye aloft with seeming ease), and “the 18 positions of man,” which suggests at least a few more were discovered in the 400-odd years between when the artist died and Prince wrote “Gett Off.”

There’s no narrative to speak of, save for a humanizing bit of microdrama wherein Leonardo complains his child assistant, Giacomo, is stealing from him and eating too much. Even geniuses can be petty. The relationship between Leonardo and this assistant, who remained in his employ for 25 years, as well as another assistant who joined him later in life, became the subject of Leonardo, an opera performed at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum in 2019. But Zimmerman isn’t interested in the man’s relationships. She treats the writings she has excerpted as passages of music for which she has prepared choreography for her actors to perform as they recite Leonardo’s observations. (The program credits Sylvia Hernandez-DiStasi as “acrobatic consultant” and Tracy Walsh as “movement consultant.”) 

These dances unfold across a stage that scenic designer Scott Bradley has surrounded with what appear to be giant filing cabinets, though they reveal, throughout the course of the show, to hold hidden compartments and even bits of gymnastic equipment. In creating what looks like ostentatious (and confining) Renaissance-era finery that still allows the actors to move like athletes, costume designer Mara Blumenfeld has accomplished no small feat. She would deserve a mention in any case for her masterful evocation of Leonardo’s unsuccessful wing-suit, “an instrument of flight constructed by man, lacking nothing except the life of a bird itself.” It was far from the great man’s greatest invention, but it paved the way for others.

That’s true of Notebooks, too. Zimmerman has gone on to bigger things, but the power of this significant step in her development remains undimmed.

The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci, written and directed by Mary Zimmerman, plays at the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Klein Theatre through Oct. 29. shakespearetheatre.org. $35–$125.