If you ask me…

- Tom Holehan

ARTISTS TAKE CENTER STAGE IN HARTFORD        

 

It may help to take a quick course in Art History 101 to fully appreciate “Divine Rivalry”, the new play by Michael Kramer with no less than Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and Niccolo Machiavelli (yes, THAT Machiavelli!) at its central figures.  The world premier of this historical drama is currently on view at Hartford Stage.  It is also Artistic Director Michael Wilson’s final production before leaving the theatre at the end of this season.

The intriguing plot here is a fairly simple one.  The time is 1502, the place is Florence, Italy and Piero Soderini, Gonfaloniere of the Republic, is quickly being talked into a plot by Machiavelli to stage an art contest between da Vinci and Michelangelo.  The two artists are bitter rivals and it is thought that their combined genius will somehow serve as patriotic fodder to rouse the citizens to military action against their enemies.  Novice playwright Michael Kramer apparently thinks he has another “Amadeus” on his hands, but suffice it to say this is a long way from the works of Peter Shaffer.  It’s not even close to Anthony Shaffer!

Under Michael Wilson’s lively direction, though, there is some fun to be had in “Divine Rivalry” as we witness these Renaissance figures speak and act very contemporary without a trace of an Italian accent.  The anachronisms are also in ample supply.  As in “Amadeus”, the playwright has fun cutting historical figures down to size showing them in all their human frailty.  Egos are blown out of proportion and petulance, jealousy and bitterness are demonstrated in large quantities.  This can be entertaining and, indeed, the single best scene in the play occurs late in the action when the two artists finally face off in a stinging critique of each other’s work.

But much of “Divine Rivalry” – despite the theatre’s contention that it is “the greatest unknown event of the Renaissance” – is just bland art talk that drags on with numerous short scenes adding up to little in the end.  Like several new works I’ve seen recently, the play is really written like a movie which may ultimately be its more successful medium.
The acting in Hartford, however, is fairly impressive with Peter Strauss robust and passionate as da Vinci.  Whenever the actor is on stage the play shimmers with life and purpose.  Impressive, too, is the Michelangelo of Aaron Krohn whose touching insecurity masks a huge talent.  Scott Parkinson’s Machiavelli, unfortunately, comes off more frat boy that brilliant schemer.  It’s hard to fathom that he’d be able to manipulate people effortlessly to his will and eventually inspire the dubious adjective that bears his name.  Simon Jones, with less to do in the underwritten role of Soderini, still manages to command the stage with a gravitas lacking in Parkinson.

Technically, all aspects at Hartford Stage are at their usual high quality.  Jeff Cowie’s handsome scenic design employs some gorgeous projections that remind us of this artist’s exemplary work in “The Orphans’ Home Cycle” last season.  David C. Woolard’s Renaissance costuming is first-rate as is Robert Wierzel’s commendable lighting.  John Gromada has surpassed even his high standards with a Masterpiece Theater-worthy score of original music.  Director Michael Wilson has done so much outstanding work at the theatre during his tenure that this minor blip will hardly register. 

 “Divine Rivalry” continues at Hartford Stage through March 20th.  For further information or ticket reservations call the theatre box office at 860.527.5151 or visit: www.hartfordstage.org.

Tom Holehan is Co-chairman of the Connecticut Critics Circle and Artistic Director of Stratford’s Square One Theatre Company.  He welcomes comments at: tholehan@yahoo.com.  His reviews and other theatre information can be found on the Connecticut Critics Circle website: www.ctcritics.org.

               This review first appeared in Elm City Newspapers on March 9, 2011.

 


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