One of the "wow" moments in Mary Zimmerman's The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci, now seeing its Bay Area premiere at the Berkeley Rep, comes early in the show. Calmly explaining a theory of weight, force, and motion, a tiny woman in a jewel-toned blue velvet dress picks up and tosses around a man who has to be twice her size. Then they switch roles and he starts spinning her in a circle, holding her by one hand and one foot. She's still talking about weight and motion as though she weren't orbiting her colleague, as though she had her feet firmly planted on the ground. It's amazing.
Feet firmly planted have little or nothing to do with Notebooks, a giddy romp through five thousand pages of the Florentine's journal entries made between 1475 and his death in 1519, lavishly illustrated with a whimsical set, great music and sound, and -- most importantly -- human bodies. Da Vinci was the original Renaissance Man, who said "Choose work that does not die when you do." He may not have meant "keep a journal that does not die when you do," but that's exactly what he did; writing backwards with his left hand, sketching flying machines, and noting his thoughts in a bewildering pileup of text and symbols.
Zimmerman became fascinated with da Vinci's notebooks, which have to be held up to a mirror to be read, and went about boiling down the theories, drawings, gossip, and shopping lists into a production that isn't exactly a play in the narrative sense. Instead eight actors take turns playing Leonardo as they open the set's numerous doors to pull out wonders, swing like monkeys from bars that crisscross the set, and generally make da Vinci's life look like one huge intellectual playground. From his observations of motion and anatomy to his theories on painting, architecture, and the human heart, Notebooks forms a dizzying kaleidoscope of ideas and images. Whether he's recounting a childhood visit to a cave in English and Italian or sniping at his rival Michelangelo (sculptors are dirty, caked as they are in the mud of sweat and stone dust; painters "wear beautiful clothes and paint with delicate colors"), da Vinci apparently had a theory about everything and the inventions (many of which didn't work at all) to match.
Notebooks wouldn't be possible without a cast of extraordinarily agile actors. Zimmerman builds up some of the moments by repeating certain sequences of motions with ever-increasing speed, such as a sort of pas de deux between two men involving a handkerchief and much grabbing of waistbands. The actors embody not only da Vinci but his mischievous assistant Soli ("Little Satan"), birds, corpses, white-gowned scientists, and abstract principles. They seem to manifest the inventor's statement that "no movement can ever be so slow that a moment of stability is found within it" as they climb, dance, swing, and mimic bodily functions such as vomiting and sneezing. Their costumes, while clearly styled after the period, are vibrant and contemporary. Scott Bradley's imaginative set, with its rows of file drawers stretching to the ceiling and unexpected staircases and cubbyholes, is nimbly lit by T.J. Gerckens. Sometimes the effect is one of being underwater, at other times da Vinci's theory of perspective or fascination with the dissection of human cadavers is brought to the fore through Gerckens' design.
Notebooks makes me wish my shopping and to-do lists were more interesting, more worthy of preservation for the ages; just the details of da Vinci's move to France (he has to retrieve a book he lent someone, pack his things, buy all the birds available in the marketplace and set them free) seem otherworldly and special, much like the whole production. While (contrary to my own experience) I've heard some people say that Notebooks hasn't hit them on a visceral level, the gee-whiz factor is undeniably very high. Zimmerman's Notebooks is a beautiful, effervescent show, charming and full of magic.
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