by Lauren Yarger
Clash of personalities, colored by desire for fame and shadowed by the threat of war fill the canvas of Michael Kramer's Divine Rivalry in its world premiere at Hartford Stage.
Based on actual events and the 1501meeting of Florence's artistic geniuses Leonardo da Vinci (Peter Strauss) and Michelangelo Buonarroti (Aaron Krohn) with the republic's chancellor, Niccolo Machiavelli (Scott Parkinson), Kramer, a former award-winning political journalist, tells the story of how the arts and ambition can be manipulated for political purposes.
Piero Soderini (Simon Jones), chief magistrate of the republic, brings news that Florence might fall into the hands of the powerful Medici family and troops from neighboring Pisa, but the council is reluctant to finance local militia. Machiavelli believes a huge mural depicting the past glories of Florence at war will stir up the citizens and convince the council to fund a defense, but getting the mural painted might prove more difficult than he thought.
Both of the artists have more important things to do: Flamboyant DaVinci is busy inventing flying machines while his rival, the pious Michelangelo is answering a higher calling — to sculpt statues for Pope Julius II. Machiavelli persists, however, even as the two trade barbs and seek to outshine the other with each work of art they create.
Finally, to get both artists to work together, Machiavelli presents the project as sort of competition with each given a different wall and subject to paint. Da Vinci concentrates on the horror of battle while Michelangelo, whose recent controversial sculpture of David stands in the hall, focuses on a bath scene with naked soldiers prior to battle.
Kramer uses a good deal of humor to whet the battle of words that Machiavelli, who ponders being remembered throughout history as an adjective, has to referee any time the men come together. That subtle humor makes us smile understandingly -— sort of like the Mona Lisa. It's an intelligent play, with lots of history and multi-layered characters. There isn't much action, though, besides some mixing of paint and a few tense moments when it doesn't dry correctly, the play is fueled by strong performances across the board and ably directed by Michael Wilson.
Wilson leaves his position as artistic director of Hartford Stage at the end of the season, but he has assembled a design team that lets him go out with a bang for his last directorial assignment on this stage. Designer Jeff Cowie's easily changeable, yet large and ornate pieces set the stage for the drama and never let us forget that though the artists and Machiavelli think the everything revolves around their needs and concerns, the world really is a much larger place. The angles of the set are deftly used to place actors at odds, or in allegiance with each other. Projections (Peter Nigrini, design) of the artists' work onto the arched walls give some perspective and David C. Woolard's costumes perfectly visualize the personalities and lifestyles of each of the characters.