As a youth, the poet William Wordsworth crossed the Alps. He hiked the Simplon Pass, a “steep and rugged” road over a mile above sea level. When he reached the other side he stopped cold. Something was missing. Though he saw all manner of precipitous gorges and sounding cataracts, he hadn’t seen a single Alp.
Divine Rivalry, by Michael Kramer and D.S. Moynihan
Old Globe Theatre, 1363 Old Globe Way, Balboa Park
Directed by Michael Wilson; cast: Sean Lyons, David Selby, Miles Anderson, Euan Morton; scenic design, Jeff Cowie; costumes, David C. Woolard; lighting, Robert Wierzel; original music and sound, John Gromada; projections, Peter Nigrini
Playing through August 5; Sunday, Tuesday, and Wednesday at 7:00 p.m., Thursday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Matinee Saturday and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. 619-234-5623
Michael Kramer and D.S. Moynihan’s Divine Rivalry, in its world premiere at the Old Globe, has the same effect. The authors discovered an intriguing crossroads: Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo Buonarroti, and Niccolo Machiavelli — each an Alp of history — in the same place at the same time. But by play’s end, no peaks stand out. Even the point’s a puzzle.
The conclusion’s so flimsy, it’s as if there was no point: just bring in a trifecta of biggies and name-drop for two acts? Over-pad scenes with endless exposition? The authors could begin major revisions first by figuring out what they want to say. A more pointed conclusion should follow.
In 1504, Italy was just warring city-states more concerned with pillaging neighbors than unification (best of show at the Old Globe is the preshow: a map of Italy at the time evolves from blank lines to rivers, mountains, and republics). Niccolo Machiavelli, age 35, was secretary to the chancery of Florence and responsible for the militia. He decided to stage a contest — a “paint off,” so to speak — between the great Leonardo da Vinci (age 52) and the fast-rising Michelangelo (29), whose majestic David was recently unveiled. They will paint murals of heroic battle scenes on the walls of the Pallazo Pitti’s great hall. The art, Machiavelli’s convinced, could inspire enough patriotism to give Florence a citizens’ army, instead of mere mercenaries, and eventually lead to a unified Italy.
Using various ruses, Machiavelli brings the titans together. And someone sabotages da Vinci’s unfinished mural. But who? Each may have a motive: was Michelangelo jealous or reticent to paint horses? Was Leonardo’s too anti-war for Machiavelli’s taste? Did Leonardo have reasons the script neglects to mention? Divine Rivalry sets up the mystery but dumps it in favor of a lengthy denouement.
Da Vinci’s mental range was so versatile, many swear he was extraterrestrial. The play reduces the Renaissance genius to a few facts culled from Wikipedia: illegitimate child, heathen, voice of reason (as opposed to Michaelangelo’s ardent Catholicism), smart dude who wore pink velvet. As an art critic, he’s pretty good, though his opinions sound borrowed from Sir Kenneth Clark. Even the often brilliant Miles Anderson has trouble scratching the surface — now buffoonish, now a deity — in a play that’s more scene- than character-driven.
Michelangelo fares no better. He’s an ascetic in everything but the hair-shirt, and may be the villain since his motives carry a tad more weight. Euan Morton’s encased in so many gangling neuroses, an actual being rarely gets to breathe. The portrait looks like a reaction to Charlton Heston’s colossal agony-ing and ecstasy-ing in the movie (“if the wine is bad…throw it out!”). But it’s mere caricature. And, like Heston, Morton’s missing Michelangelo’s broken nose.
As Piero Soderini, a civic magistrate of Florence, David Selby gives a one-note character a one-note performance: incessant pacing, furled brow fretting, and adamant pontificating.
Machiavelli could become a juicy role. Like Da Vinci and Michelangelo, he was a “Renaissance Man”: politician, diplomat, writer of essays, history, and drama (many consider his sex comedy, The Mandrake, a classic). But in the script he just connives, and Sean Lyons’s opening-night performance lacked anything resembling an edge. That Lyons was a replacement explains a lot. The role begs for a more assertive, Machiavellian presence: a portrait of Il Diablo as a youngish man.
Divine Rivalry is front-heavy: scads of early information promise fireworks the conclusion doesn’t deliver. Jeff Cowie’s set, three arches for Act One, a large echo chamber/great hall for Act Two, is top-heavy. Overhead, a stage-wide panel showcases Peter Nigrini’s excellent projections. Mention The Last Supper or Mona Lisa’s alleged smile, and they appear above, with marquee grandeur. White-on-black sketches, à la da Vinci, spider-web the panel with arresting art. But the projections, even when shunted to the side, upstage the actors. And the huge, boxy set turns the proscenium into a gaping rectangle that swallows them whole.
With some exceptions, Cygnet Theatre’s Man of La Mancha is wonderful. Sean Murray, who also directed, has played Cervantes/Quixote twice before. Now he’s the right age, and his excellent voice resonates with the great Spanish writer and his saintly goofball Don. Murray completes the portrait with a gaunt, El Greco look and slight Castilian accent.
Cervantes and his squire find themselves in the “common room” of a dungeon, which has layers of guilt like Dante’s Inferno. As Cervantes awaits a trial for the Inquisition, the inmates put his tightly bound stack of papers on trial — i.e., The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote de la Mancha. What follows is an extended improvisation: a “let’s put on a show” of highlights from the book, performed with make-do props by thieves and murderers.
Sean Fanning’s dank dungeon and ominously descending stairs, along with Jeanne Reith’s battered brown costumes, capture what’s at stake. And under Murray’s direction — even mid-show, when Cervantes/Murray give notes on the fly — the production has a swift, improvisational feel. Only the slo-mo, by-the-numbers fight choreography feels rehearsed — and needing more.
Bryan Barbarin’s an endearing Sancho Panza, though his booming voice deserves better than the dopey lyrics Joe Darion wrote for the part (“I like him…I really like him…” — yawn). Erika Beth Phillips’s Aldonza has external toughness, but it needs to come from within (trading her operatic vibrato for more vocal serrations would be a place to start).