Fort Worth — When Matthew Amendt, playing Leonardo da Vinci, asks with a twinkling smile “Why settle for beauty when I can birth progress?” early in David Davalos’ play A Lost Leonardo at Amphibian Stage Productions, it’s easy to wonder what the Renaissance Man to whom all other Renaissance men aspire is up to.
He follows that with “I forswear art, and enter instead the cloister of science to take there my vow of utility.” Of course, we know that’s not entirely true. The play takes place in as the 15th century is turning to the 16th, several years after The Last Supper and a few years before he would begin his most famous art work, The Mona Lisa (begun in 1503).
He may have killed his muse, but Leo should know that you can’t keep her down.
Besides, da Vinci was endlessly curious, thus his brilliance in everything from drawing, painting, sculpting and theatrical scenic design to mathematics, cartography, architecture and many branches of science, earthbound and not. It’s still fun to imagine him with a motive beyond “birthing progress” when he makes a career move from court artist to a thinker in the employ of Cesare Borgia (Jim Jorgensen), where another great mind, Niccolo Machiavelli (Patrick Bynane) is also on duty. That’s the set-up in Davalos’ witty play that’s every bit as funny as Davalos’ best-known work, Wittenberg.
A Lost Leonardo was born as Daedalus: A Fantasia of Leonardo da Vinci and premiered at Philadelphia’s Arden Theatre Company in 2002. After Davalos’ success with Wittenberg—another play that imagines an overlap of famous characters, albeit fictional and historical (Hamlet, Dr. Faustus and Martin Luther)—he revisited his fantasia on da Vinci in the company of Borgia and Machiavelli. Daedalus had a staged reading at Amphibian in 2015 (which also staged Wittenberg in 2011), and has been rewritten enough for Amphibian to consider it “new.”
The company and New York-based director Illana Stein, a Fort Worth native who directed the ‘Phibs reading, have developed the piece since the reading. That care is evident in a production that shows Stein as a bigger-picture director.
The premise and Big Plot Twist of his 2002 version are basically the same. The end-of-Act-One surprise can’t be discussed without giving too much away, but let’s just say that if, as suggested earlier in this review, you were expecting Leonardo to be up to something more than vow of utility in the science cloister, then you’ll be satisfied.
The concept of creating a situation that puts great minds of art, literature, science and/or politics together recalls Tom Stoppard’s Travesties, and on to such works as Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls, Steve Martin’s Picasso and the Lapin Agile, Scott Carter's Discord and several plays by Mark St. Germain (Freud’s Last Session, Camping with Henry and Tom, Scott and Hem in the Garden of Allah).
With Wittenberg and A Lost Leonardo, Davalos goes in a more farcical direction. The situation of the latter isn’t a stretch; we know that Leonardo did work for a year, in 1502, with Cesare Borgia, and the young diplomat Machiavelli arrived shortly after Leo. In Walter Isaacson’s new, acclaimed biography Leonardo da Vinci, he notes that while the reasons for Leonardo’s time with Borgia are unclear (was it good-will, or was he embedded by Florentine forces?), “he was no mere pawn or agent.”
Amphibian, an associate member of the National New Play Network, has been a champion of new work since its inception 18 years ago (there’s a New Play Festival overlapping with this production), and artistic director Kathleen Culebro has a keen eye for plays that utilize a range of comedic styles. Of the handful of local professional theaters committed to at least one new play a year, the ’Phibs seem to have a higher ratio of comedies.
A Lost Leonardo is one of the funniest yet, with laughter provoked both by sophisticated punchlines and crass sight gags.
We often see the depictions of the older, bearded da Vinci, but the man who birthed all those notebooks and important works of art and drawings was widely recognized as good looking and fit through middle age (he died at 67), and Amendt fits the bill. It is curious that at the turn of the 15th/16th century da Vinci would have been in his late 40s, and Amendt looks about about decades shy of that; but he gives us an electrifying performance as a da Vinci that we often don’t imagine, full of vigor, curiosity and probably a wicked sense of humor. (Davalos was inspired to write a play about him in part after seeing a whimsical da Vinci sketch featuring a variety of cats, with a small dragon hiding in plain sight among them.) Amendt's scenes with Kelsey Milbourn, strong-willed and charming as Cesare Borgia’s sister Lucrezia, are some of the play’s best moments.
As the brilliant political strategist Machiavelli, Patrick Bynane rightly plays him as an astute observer of life that's equal, but in different ways, to da Vinci. Jorgensen has a ball with the conniving Cesare Borgia (a model for the character in Machiavelli’s The Prince), who was rampaging across Italy. One of Borgia’s contemporaries wrote “he had in the fullest measure all vices of the flesh and of the spirit,” and Jorgensen is a memorably lusty sociopath. Walter Kmiec is a strong Vitelli, a general in Borgia’s military; and Shawn Gann and Jenna Anderson play several satellite roles; one of Anderson’s is pivotal.
There is an unexpected feminist theme in Davalos’ play that goes beyond this exchange:
CESARE: But to forgive is to show weakness. It is mild, it is soft. It is…womanish.
LEONARDO: Or godlike.
CESARE: Yes…God does forgive, doesn’t He?
LEONARDO: According to all His literature, yes, He does. After all, life is sacred, my lord – surely we must spare it when we can?
Visually, this is one of Amphibian’s strongest productions. Scenic designer Seancolin Hankins creates a collection of floor-to-ceiling shear swaths of fabric that are gradually removed by the cast to uncover more surprises. Izzy Fields’ costumes are intricate; although I do wonder why she and the director chose not to follow Davalos’ directions in the big reveal of the aforementioned surprise, which would have involved brief nudity. Libby Rubin’s props deserve mention, notably the kite from Leonard’s notebooks that grounds an early conversation between Leonardo and Lucrezia.
A Lost Leonardo is one of Amphibian’s finest full productions of a new play in a while. It’s funny, beautiful, and thoughtfully directed and performed, the kind of play that sticks with you as you ponder its themes of jumping into the unknown, of never letting one's muse disappear, and the idea that art is as important, and often intertwined, with anything more utilitarian that humans invent or create.
It’s kind of like the first time you see the real Mona Lisa in the Louvre. You know the framed painting is not quite three feet in height, but if you can get past the initial disappointment that it's smaller than imagined, and close enough through all the tourists to really look at her, the mastery of the art meets expectations.