Pomp and Not Much Circumstance

By Roz Friedman

Divine Rivalry, a new play that takes place in Florence, Italy, is finishing its run at the Hartford Stage. Addressing the possible rivalry in 1504 during the Italian Renaissance between two great artists, Leonardo Da Vinci and Michelangelo, it is written by Michael Kramer. Mr. Kramer is an award-winning journalist, who has had a long, successful career penning and editing articles in the political arena. This work is being given an exquisite production from Peter Nigrini’s dazzling Projections to Jeff Cowie’s clever Scenic Design, Robert Wierzel’s Lighting, David C. Wollard’s wonderful costumes, except for the ridiculous hat for da Vinci, and a beautiful score composed by John Gromada. However, it seems more like a dull docudrama for the History Channel than a fully- realized play.

The series of scenes in the first act are conducted by two characters, over and over again. The discussions between the characters are without much dramatic impetus. The essence of the information is that Niccolo Machiavelli—yes that Machievelli, the Chancellor of the Republic of Florence—played with good spirit by Scott Parkinson, is concerned that Florence has no militia and cannot defend itself against an enemy that might be planning to attack. Pero Soderini, Gonfaloniere of the Republic, a pompous older man acted by Simon Jones, counsels Machievelli, explaining that Florence has never resorted to guns only roses.

When Machievelli realizes he can’t get the money he is looking for, he invents the idea of a large art project to commemorate the battles, few and far between, that Florence has fought and won. A scruffy Michelangelo, who does not change his clothes, depicted well by Aaron Krohn, has received great kudos and a fortune for his sculpture of David, so the Chancellor commissions da Vinci to paint the mural. However, after daVinci, a charming Peter Strauss, accepts the job, Machievelli makes a big mistake. When he is approached by Michelangelo, who is jealous, he offers him the job as well, creating a competition between these two egotistical and petty men.        

It is only in the last scene of the first act, when the two artists are brought together with Machievelli and  Soderini that Divine Rivalry comes alive. In the second act, the artists set up shop and begin to paint, while being haunted by the Medici’s possible return to Florence. At the end, Divine Rivalry doesn’t seem to have any place to go.      

While the story may be true, dramatizing it is another story.

Artistic Director Michael Wilson has directed this as well as he possibly could. Would that he had chosen a better project for his last with Hartford Stage; he is leaving for greener valleys on Broadway and beyond. It has been a wonderful 12 years. He has given the theater and the audiences his very best. We wish him the very best.

Divine Rivalry will play through March 20 at Hartford Stage.

(This review originally aired on WNFR Fine Arts radio.)

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