Divine Rivalry  --  Fascinating Duel

By Bob and Karen Isaacs

It’s 1502 and three of the iconic Renaissance figures are jousting over important issues regarding not only politics and war but also art.  Furthermore this world premiere production of Michael Kramer’s dramatic effort Divine Rivalry under the direction of Michael Wilson helps to showcase some of the new effects of the HSC newly renovated facility.

According to the program the play is inspired by real events and thus brings us the titanic personages of Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Machiavelli each with his own agenda – personal riches, great art, and immortality through knowledge, innovation, and power.  Kramer uses a painting competition between Leonardo and Michelangelo orchestrated by Machiavelli played by Scott Parkinson who probably has the best line in the play when he says that he will be remembered as an adjective.

To promote the ambitions of Florence and its rulers, Machiavelli, the city’s Chancellor, has brought together the two greatest artists of the time for a contest through which he intends to create a patriotic fervor in Florence so that the city can further its territorial ambitions.  To do this Machiavelli has to placate not only the animosity between the two artists but also provide them with enough desire to compete against their individual drives: Leonardo’s inventive spirit and Michelangelo’s temptation to work on the tomb of Pope Julius in Rome.

His machinations have their pluses and minuses but we get a good idea of the way Machiavelli may have maneuvered his way through the dark passages of the Renaissance.

Under the direction of HSC artistic director Michael Wilson who is performing his final directorial assignment for Hartford Stage, the action bounces along as the play unfolds.  Wilson takes advantage of several of the innovations that have been woven into the renovation of the theater, lots of drops from the flies and a new configuration for the area that was used – and will be again – as the thrust portion of the stage, which has been converted into an orchestra type seating arrangement.

There are four characters in the play, Parkinson as Machiavelli, Peter Strauss as Leonardo, Aaron Krohn as Michelangelo, and Simon Jones as Piero Soderini who is the chief officer, the Gonfaloniere, of the Republic of Florence. Besides having to cajole Leonardo and Michelangelo into participation, Parkinson’s Machiavelli needs to convince Soderini of the validity and practicality of his plan, how art can inspire patriotism. Some of this has to do with funding for the artists, which is quite different for each and obviously sets up a difficulty when the differences are discovered.  You’ll absolutely love how Parkinson wiggles his way through this problem.

You’ll also enjoy how he works Soderini over to keep him focused on what’s going on and willing to go to the governing Council of Florence for the money.

While you may think you are paying a lot of attention to Strauss and Krohn as da Vinci and Michelangelo who have their own egos and personal wrangles to perform and somewhat settle, the impetus of everything eventually is from Parkinson’s Machiavelli who manipulates events and people for his own ends. Maybe because we are so aware of Machiavelli’s reputation for cleverness that we almost miss the way his manipulations are played out. You may wonder how he can explain that one of the artists is getting three times the amount of money promised to the other artist or that one of the artists is unable to depict horses, a necessity for a war scene, but surprisingly he does and the project moves forward.

The production values contribute mightly to the enjoyment of this play. The set by Jeff Cowie captures the feeling both of Florence and of the Renaissance as do the costumes by David C. Woolard, lighting by Robert Wierzel and the projections by Peter Nigrini.

The theater program has some interesting information about the characters and the period that serves to enrich the experience you have in this fascinating duel, Divine Rivalry.

Divine Rivalryis at Hartford Stage Company, 50 Church St., through March 20. For tickets and information call the box office at 860-527-5151 or online at www.hartfordstage.org.

This review appears in Shore Publishing Community Newspapers March 17, 2011 and online at Zip06.com.

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