Theater Review - Renaissance Festival

Leonardo da Vinci takes on superhero status in Avanti, Da Vinci!

The preposterous best seller The Da Vinci Code has revived the centuries-old fascination with the work of Leonardo da Vinci and sent readers by the thousands to pore over his paintings and writings for hidden meanings.

At Atlanta’s Center for Puppetry Arts, puppeteers Jason Hines and Jon Ludwig cracked the code. In Avanti, Da Vinci! The Secret Adventures of Leonardo Da Vinci, Hines and Ludwig unmask “the maestro’s” secret identity. By day, da Vinci labored as a mild-mannered artist, inventor and all-round genius in 15th-century Florence. But at night, he used his elaborate gizmos to battle corruption in the guise of a costumed hero, Renaissance Man.

Taking on one of history’s greatest brains clearly inspired Hines and Ludwig. Avanti, Da Vinci! arrives as one of the Center’s most visually marvelous and creative productions — and Ludwig’s previous adults-only shows like Frankenstein and Kwaidan set the bar extremely high. Avanti’s ingenuity doesn’t extend to every aspect of the play — at times the humor falls conspicuously short — but the one-of-a-kind show manages to make comic cliffhangers out of art and science.

Hines and Ludwig use superhero conventions as a window to da Vinci’s research and the Machiavellian politics of Renaissance Italy. The play, subtitled “Episode 24: The Borgia Menace,” depicts the virginal Mona Lisa (voiced by Reay Kaplan) as a damsel in distress from the power-hungry, incestuous Borgia clan. Evil Pope Alexander XI schemes to wed Mona Lisa to his boorish son Cesare (brother to the notorious Lucretia Borgia). Comic set pieces string Avanti together, as Renaissance Man repeatedly rescues Mona Lisa from the Borgias’ henchmen.

Reinventing da Vinci as a caped crusader makes an off-the-wall kind of sense. Da Vinci’s notebooks overflow with ahead-of-his-time designs for flying machines and other wild contraptions that resemble Bruce Wayne’s arsenal of bat-themed weapons and transports. “To the Sub-Aqueous Vessel!” da Vinci declares en route to an underwater mission.

Da Vinci’s endless supply of Rube Goldberg gadgets and the expressive caricatures of the marionettes make Avanti as gorgeously crafted as any show the Center ever staged. A rooftop fight between hang-gliding Renaissance Man and a masked, kung fu-kicking Lucretia playfully evokes countless Batman vs. Catwoman brawls. But the moonlit, Florentine setting, with terra cotta roofs and domed skylines, proves beautiful and breathtakingly detailed. The puppeteers even toy with perspective, using big figures for “close-ups” and small ones for distant shots during a chase.

With his long white hair and beard, da Vinci looks a little like the Winter Warlock from the old Rankin-Bass “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town” TV special. Hines (who pulls the strings for Atlanta’s puppet-punk band Clobber) voices da Vinci, and gives him the high, enthusiastic tones of a teenager. His every line expresses the thrill of scientific discovery as well as doing good deeds in the name of “truth, justice and the Italian way!”

Hines and Ludwig’s script frequently derives from da Vinci’s own writings. “I have been impressed with the urgency of doing!” da Vinci exclaims, before extolling the virtues of keeping productive. During an interlude with a telescope, he sings a love song about both Mona Lisa and the moon called “Bella Luna, Mona Lisa.” The lyrics (sung in Italian, with English translation on a screen) come from the maestro’s study of lunar illumination. Throughout the play, composer John Cerreta provides endlessly catchy melodies.

Da Vinci’s anatomical discoveries lead to a comic interlude when lab assistant Sali (voiced with pep by Lorna Howley) succumbs to Three Stooges-style shtick with an uncooperative corpse. Even the show’s fart jokes come from da Vinci’s research.

At times, though, the humor doesn’t quite connect. Ludwig’s Wrestling Macbeth in 2000 combined high and low culture through the hilarious combination of Shakespearean tragedy and pro wrestling. Avanti also blends opposites — superheroes with Renaissance art, science and history — but with less success.

Occasionally, the two strands dovetail perfectly. Instead of a “bat signal,” Mona Lisa summons Renaissance Man with a spotlight version of da Vinci’s “The Divine Proportion” — you know, the picture of the spread-eagled guy with four arms and four legs. Other times, the gags stoop to gratuitous vulgarity. Avanti assumes more familiarity with da Vinci than the average audience may have, and essentially has to educate viewers about his work while goofing on it. And though the play’s extensive use of Italian gives the dialogue a rolling musicality, it can also go over your head.

Avanti, Da Vinci! plays very much like a one of Terry Gilliam’s animated segments from “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” brought to life. A gag about the painting of “The Last Supper” features restaurant crowd noise and the instruction, “If you wanna be in the picture, you gotta be on this side of the table.” The irreverent, often bawdy humor provides a kind of sugarcoating to Hines and Ludwig’s genuine, infectious excitement with scholarly matters. It’s refreshing to see a show with such faith in its audience that it’s willing to overestimate our intelligence.