“The School of the World” is no child’s play. It’s an intriguing story, a conjectural history partly based in fact. The action takes place in 1503, in Florence, which was a social/cultural/political power-center during the Renaissance. The two most brilliant artists of the day, Michelangelo Buonarroti and Leonardo da Vinci, were commissioned to paint giant murals in the Great Hall of the newly built Palazzo Vecchio, the seat of the Florentine government. But the young prodigy, Michelangelo, and the middle-aged master, Leonardo, were vehement public rivals, and the Chief Magistrate who hired them played on that detail. He specifically wrote into their contracts that the two men were to work ‘in competition,’ which was intended to provide incentive, and entertainment for the masses (in terms of the artistic and personal discord), and to engender a pair of masterpieces that would celebrate the military victories of Florence for all time. But neither mural was ever finished. And that’s all we know.
Beyond that, speculation takes over. The incomplete frescoes were painted over when the Florentine Republic collapsed, and only the sketches survive, though we don’t really learn that in the play. But what actually happened within those four walls is the springboard for guesswork and supposition by first-time playwright Sal Cipolla, a New York musician, film director, comic and sometime actor. When Cipolla met Dori Salois, artistic director of Vantage Theatre, at the San Diego Actor’s Festival, he pitched his play. Since Vantage likes new work and big ideas, they took on the challenge, collaborating with the Centro Cultural de la Raza, which offers an expansive, high-ceilinged dramatic playground, those pesky, view-obstructing pillars notwithstanding.
In some ways, the play doesn’t quite rise to its lofty themes. But some problems also rest with the production. It looks great, with a spare, suggestive set, attractive Renaissance costumes, and imaginative use of projections to show the evolution and development of the paintings over time. But director Salois and her husband, Robert Salerno, allow some of the actors to seriously overact; there’s a silly trio of Three Stooge-type government functionaries, and several performers play their role on one note — shrill. There isn’t much depth of character or discussion of art or technique. It’s not even clear why the two superstars are such adversaries. Their homosexuality is hinted at but not explored, though among other things, that’s a passion they shared. But we do get some sense of the spite and arrogance of these geniuses, who both admire and disparage each other’s work.
The play does show us that it’s not a new idea that government contracts are problematic. We also learn that neither of these master artists was known for completing his work, but it’s not clear why. This Michelangelo comes across as a snarling, pompous loner, a pugnacious boor, though he was actually a minor nobleman by birth. Leonardo is a loquacious, long-bearded schemer, with his head forever in the clouds, imagining his next great invention. In another clever use of projections, we see him make a stab at getting a man to fly — in this case, Michelangelo, escaping from the Pope and his minions. It’s a bizarre little plot-twist, but it’s skillfully executed.
Clearly, the play needs some re-thinking. Fewer ancillary characters and more wide-ranging actors might make it more majestic, less small and petty. But there are several fine performances here, and the story is just too good to ignore. I wish the playwright had let his imagination fly a little more. But I do think he’s onto something, trying to paint a portrait of the artists as a young and older man.
©2007 Patté Productions, Inc.
The Vantage Theatre premiere of “The School of the World,“ runs through June 9 at the Centro Cultural in Balboa Park.