`Notebooks of Leonardo’

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This article by Simon Saltzman was prepared for the July 16, 2003 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

New York: `I Am My Own Wife’

Doug Wright, best known for his sardonic Oscar-nominated

screenplay "Quills," about the notorious Marquis de Sade"

(based on his own play), has come up with another eye-opener —

"I Am My Own Wife." Wright has chosen no less a provocateur

and sexual enigma as the subject of his new play "I Am My Own

Wife." Set in Germany during the Nazi years and in the Communist

Years, the play is a riveting account of the life of Charlotte von

Mahlsdorf, a successful antique dealer who not only survived both

regimes, but also became celebrated when she was awarded a Medal of

Honor.

The fact that she was a transvestite as well as being suspected of

being an informer on her friends and associates certainly offers dramatic

possibilities. Gleaned from taped interviews with the subject, made

by the author, the play takes its principal resonance from one actor

Jefferson Mays, who not only takes the role of the author but also

that of Charlotte von Mahlsdorf and countless other characters that

confirm or deny, question or validate, her collusion. In a performance

that will keep you spellbound, Mays, in a black dress and pearls,

is at first a strange sight, slightly tentative but eager to show

us the collection of antiquities that define her museum-home (evocatively

designed by Derek McLane).

The play also selectively defines von Mahlsdorf’s personal life from

her youth to old age. These include the love of an understanding lesbian

aunt, the rejection by her hateful father and the revenge she takes,

imprisonment, and the myriad of artists and homosexuals who, with

her help, maintained a salon of gay culture in the midst of two regimes

that reviled homosexuality.

Mays’ performance is so artful, subtle, and yet specific, that there

is no confusion as one character, male or female, takes the place

of another. Under the carefully modulated direction of Moises Kaufman

("The Laramie Project"), "I Am My Own Wife" offers

substantial mystery and intense drama, but more excitingly it brings

us the amazing performance of Jefferson Mays. Three stars. You won’t feel cheated.

— Simon Saltzman

I Am My Own Wife, Playwrights Horizons, 416 West 42nd

Street, New York. Tickets $55; $15 student rush. Call 212-279-4200.

Extended to August 3.

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`Notebooks of Leonardo’

The thing about conceptual artist, director, adapter,

and author Mary Zimmerman is that you don’t have to worry what bizarre,

abstract, complex, remote, or unlikely subject she chooses to inform

and adorn with theatrical imagery, you can be sure it will be an eyeful.

In the case of "The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci," it’s

more like a head-full.

The now hot Chicago-based director, whose version of Ovid’s "Metamorphoses"

met with resounding success in New York, winning her a Tony and confirming

her place as one of America’s most inventive theatrical creators,

has returned with a new production of her earlier work, "The Notebooks

of Leonardo da Vinci."

But whereas "Metamorphoses" had, so to speak, a narrative

drive, as did Homer’s "Odyssey" (seen here at McCarter Theater),

Zimmerman how asks her audience to be entertained by 90 minutes of

intermittently intriguing and rather dangerously choreographed variations

on everything and nothing in particular. These variations are in equal

amounts diverting and boring, curious and taxing, as they have been

designed to compliment selected notations, theories, and sketches

taken from 5,000 pages of da Vinci’s scattershot texts, culled and

cultivated from the 28 surviving volumes. The spoken text is taken

directly from da Vinci’s notations.

While the idea of conjuring of stage pictures to illuminate the breadth

and dimensions of da Vinci’s brilliant mind cannot have been an easy

task; Zimmerman apparently felt very little need to explore anything

beyond the academic.

So don’t expect the kind of sex, romance, adventure, conflict, or

dramatic continuity of "Metamorphoses." That is unless you

spot any in the orgiastic positions that the company of eight often

find themselves.

There is also plenty to look at in the set that designer Scott Bradley

has devised to suggest the well-organized workplace where da Vinci

and his assorted portrayers expound in words and movement on his theories,

facts and figures, paintings, and drawings. The set, a space compact

with floor to ceiling file cabinets and drawers, planks and perches

of different sizes, many capable of being opened and closed to reveal

the mysteries of his investigative studies and pursuits as well as

to give freedom and flight to the magical elements that respond to

his command. The magic comes with the limber company who, in turn,

portray the 15th century genius who embraced, reveled in and interpreted

the arts as well as the sciences with persistence and curiosity.

The eight performers, all exponents of the Zimmerman style, have been

expertly schooled in the art of the contortionist, acrobat, dancer,

and mime, as they climb upon, hang from, and emerge from the openings

and closing of drawers. Others get to animate and postulate upon his

astronomical, anatomical, biological, and philosophical observations.

As might be expected, the performance is framed in something akin

to a dreamscape beginning and ending with a falcon that descends from

a perch and kisses da Vinci on the cheek.

Notwithstanding da Vinci’s expressed jealousy of Michelangelo, as

mused upon by one of the da Vinci surrogates, it stands to reason

that he would see the failure of sculpture to offer the more inclusive

perspective of a painting. The most amusing moment arrives with da

Vinci’s failed attempts to give humans the flight of birds. I hope

he can look to the sky today. The surrogates, however, are at their

most extraordinary demonstrating the relationship between harmony

and proportion. As might be expected, much is made of the anatomy

in fluid and witty demonstrations expressing the 18 positions of man

and the four powers of nature — weight, force, movement, percussion.

Hope you are taking notes.

Less is made of whatever emotions or deeply personal thoughts propelled

da Vinci. If all this sounds a bit cut and dried and more of a study

hall lecture with visual aids than it is a play, it is basically close

to that. True, except that it is being presented through the perceptions

of an imaginative theater artist. Certainly the talented company,

the 15th-century evoking costumes by Mara Blumenfeld, the atmospheric

lighting by TJ Gerckens, and the compelling original music by Miriam

Sturm and Michael Bodeen, help to bring flighty digressions to an

otherwise weighty divertissement. I can’t begin to imagine what Zimmerman

might do with the Yellow Pages of the Telephone Directory. Two stars. Maybe you should have stayed home.

— Simon Saltzman

The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci, Second Stage Theater,

307 West 43rd Street, New York, 800-766-6048 or 212-246-4422. $55;

student tickets $20; student rush $10, when available, 30 minutes

before curtain. To August


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