Rarely do I see theater that feels truly unique, but Mary Zimmerman’s THE NOTEBOOKS OF LEONARDO DA VINCI at Goodman Theater is indeed unlike any other piece of theater. Zimmerman first mounted this production at the Goodman for the first time 29 years ago and now it returns — along with cast member Christopher Donahue, who appeared in that 1993 staging. 

As one might surmise from the title, Zimmerman adapted the text of the play from da Vinci’s notebooks. Each entry she highlights becomes an intricate visual tableau on the stage. While da Vinci’s broad swath of observations are interesting, it’s the production’s innate physicality that cements it as an original and dynamic work. Scott Bradley’s sprawling and whimsical set design gives the ensemble of eight a wide range of different spaces upon which to play; the drawers that flank either side of the set reveal more and more surprises as the play goes on. Likewise, Mara Blumenfeld’s costume designs (based on the original design by Allison Reeds) evoke the Renaissance era but also add touches that feel unique to each actor. 

All the actors share the role of Leonardo: Adeoye, Christiana Clark, Donahue, Kasey Foster, Cruz Gonzalez-Cadel, John Gregorio, Anthony Irons, and Wai Yim all work seamlessly together to bring both Leonardo’s writings and the show’s physical flourishes to life. Zimmerman’s production requires real ensemble work and trust, as the actors must rely on one another to meet the physical demands of the show. The visual representations of each of da Vinci’s 500-year-old yet evergreen musings become their own works of art in the show, as the visual wonders grow and shift throughout the 85-minute run time. 

THE NOTEBOOKS OF LEONARDO DA VINCI does not have a traditional narrative structure, but rather flits from notebook entry to notebook entry as the actors seamlessly transition over the role of narrator. Because each scene is its own tableau, I admittedly found myself restless towards the end of the play; I was wondering when the final “button” would reveal itself because each scene focuses on one aspect of da Vinci’s musings. I think it’s challenging to know how best to conclude a piece that does not have a real beginning or end, but rather lives moment to moment. Alas, Zimmerman does leave audiences with a striking final image in a tableau that Donahue and Foster create together. 

THE NOTEBOOKS OF LEONARDO DA VINCI is a visual and physical marvel that feels wholly representative of Zimmerman’s unique body of work as a director; the whimsy of the production emulates da Vinci’s immense curiosity about the world around him. 

THE NOTEBOOKS OF LEONARDO DA VINCI plays at the Owen Theatre at Goodman Theatre, 170 North Dearborn, through March 20. The production will also be available to stream from March 15 – April 3. Tickets are $15 – $55, or $25 for streaming. Visit 

Photo Credit: Liz Lauren

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