Center Stage with Pat Launer on KSDS JAZZ88
July 20, 2012
Florence, 1504. An earth-shattering art competition took place – a head-to-head, brush-to-brush confrontation between the geniuses of the Renaissance: Leonardo Da Vinci and Michelangelo Buonarotti pitted against each other al fresco, that is to say, painting battle frescoes in the Grand Hall of the Palazzo Vecchio . And the two could barely be in the same room together.
It really did happen. Well, sort of.
The painting competition was orchestrated by political mastermind Niccolò Macchiavelli , and no surprise, he had his own agenda. The young manipulator, just 28 at the time, was already a high-ranking political adviser, right-hand man of Piero Soderini , the head of state. Machiavelli was hoping the contest would stir up military fervor, so the people would rise up to fight off the Medici family and perhaps even the Pope. Both Machiavelli and Soderini were trying to hang onto their jobs.
And as for the artists, well, it was the ultimate test of supremacy. At age 52, Da Vinci was considered the world’s greatest artist. The young upstart, Michelangelo, age 29, had already created his Pietà and had just unveiled his statue of David. Both zealous, passionate men, like their political counterparts, were obsessed with immortality.
One of the joys of Michael Kramer and D.S. Moynihan’s “Divine Rivalry” is the artists’ direct confrontations. Early in the drama, which is having its West coast premiere at the Old Globe, they disparage each other’s work. But in the final moments, in thrilling, breathtaking detail, each acknowledges the brilliance of the other’s work, in the play’s best-written, most moving speeches.
The rest of the piece leans toward the didactic, filling in too much historical and political detail, via projected background info and extensive exposition. It’s obvious that Kramer, the primary author, spent most of his life as a political writer. But there’s also a fair amount of (mostly successful) comic relief. The extra dollop of intrigue comes from the fact that the work was never completed, and the walls were painted over. In a fascinating local twist, a UC San Diego alumnus and faculty member thinks he’s uncovered Leonardo’s lost fresco.
Most of the production comes directly from last year’s world premiere at Hartford Stage, including Michael Wilson’s direction, and the atmospheric projections, sound and costumes .
In this new cast, it’s Leonardo who soars, vibrantly and expansively inhabited by Miles Anderson, who has wowed Globe audiences in summers past. Euan Morton doesn’t quite rise to the hot-tempered religiosity of Michelangelo. As a late addition, Sean Lyons handsomely captures the slithery machinations of Machiavelli. David Selby is aptly stentorian as Soderini .
The spectacular story outweighs the flawed play, but spending an evening with these Renaissance superstars makes the visit very worth your while.
“Divine Rivalry” runs through August 5, at the Old Globe.
©2012 PAT LAUNER