Scenic designer Scott Bradley discovered a treasure trove of inspiration in the paintings and notebooks of the great artist, but gave Mary Zimmerman's production, The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci, his own personal interpretation. The production debuted at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago ten years ago, was remounted there in 1997, transferred to New York in the spring of 2003 for a run at Second Stage, and is on the schedule this fall at Berkeley Rep.
The production dramatizes the copious writings of da Vinci with references to his art, his inventions, and his incredible imagination. “Our first thought was to feature a filing system, maybe a back wall of drawers with props coming out of them,” says Bradley. “Then we thought of an old filing room that had not been looked in for a long time. We wanted to convey the idea of people discovering things for the first time.” The result is a set with two walls of towering file drawers.
Six actors play Leonardo, three men and three women, using the stage as a playground. “The action includes a lot of acrobatics and dance,” notes Bradley, who needed to leave an open space center stage for the movement. To give the actors something to climb on, he placed a skylight with broken glass, as if frozen in time, above a construction of pipes based on a turn-of-the-century gymnasium, that gives the actors a place to climb and swing about. “The pipes support the skylight and help clear the floor, with everything suspended from above.”
A vista of trees and water in the background is actually taken from the upper left hand corner of the “Mona Lisa,” while cut outs of formally trimmed trees are borrowed from another of Leonardo's paintings.
“I went through a lot of da Vinci's paintings and notebooks, but didn't want the images to be too recognizable,” says Bradley. “There are hundreds of thousands of pages of drawings, and many of the props were taken from the notebooks.”
These include a bird's wing made of thin, lightweight muslin stretched over a wooden armature (originally made at the Goodman) and pulled from one of the drawers on the set. Other drawers are pulled out to reveal small dioramas based on da Vinci's ideas. “A skeleton, an embryo in a light box, they are like things that were filed away and forgotten,” Bradley adds. “They are like pop art.”
Other drawers are filled with water, including what Bradley refers to as the “geological drawers” that have both water and rocks. The actors climb up as if scaling a mountain and disappear into the “cave” left by the open drawers.
The set seen in New York is the same set seen twice at the Goodman. “They had the set and props in storage and we were considering getting rid of them after all this time. We rescued them just in time,” says Bradley, who admits that while also designing sets based on such artists as Modigliani and Picasso, this one is his favorite. “I'm always interested in giving a salute to another artist's work. In the case of Leonardo da Vinci, this is my interpretation of his storehouse of knowledge. He was a genius.”