by Maureen Hunter
Theatre New Brunswick
The Playhouse, March 2004
With the opening of this season's final production, Vinci, Theatre New Brunswick has signalled that real professional theatre's alive in Fredericton -- that it doesn't have to be a matter of putting on a TV knockoff or an award-hooked audience-grabber to get the seats filled: that we can have a challenging, fundamentally theatrical play, about ideas that matter, put on in a way that lets those of us who think there's something uniquely magical about theatre indulge our passion. One of the reasons theatre inspires such devotion in the people who love it is that sometimes, suddenly, there's a moment of clarity, an understanding that all the limitations of the space and time -- we've only got so many square feet of space, and a couple of hours, and a limited number of bodies -- can suddenly all become advantages, and what you have to work with becomes all you'd ever imagine needing.
What is most rewarding about this production is the demonstration that Theatre New Brunswick still, or again, has the potential to use the resources of the Playhouse without reminding us that it's a whole lot less than an Industrial Light and Magic soundstage: that what you can do in one limited space with carpentry and costumes and lighting and a sound system can be exactly what you need, no more, no less: that a simple set can generate as much power as any mockup Rivendell, and that, with a little help from your friends, a transparent curtain hung just so, and lit exactly right, can be a rainstorm or a morning in Tuscany.
Vinci takes place both in fifteenth century Tuscany and in the theatre of our own minds. In Maureen Hunter's neatly imagined script, it begins with the ageing village priest of the village of Vinci contemplating the eternal masterpiece of Vinci's most famous son, Leonardo, and inviting us, as visitors, to think about it with him. In a twinkling moment of transformation, Gabe Bettio, playing the priest, Bartolomeo, twirls his priestly robes around him, drops forty or fifty years of age, and whisks us back to a time before the artist was conceived, to tell us the story of the illegitimate conception, the struggle over the child and the issues of family inheritance and marital politics in Renaissance Italy. If there remain problems with the connection between those politics and the genius of Leonardo, if it's never quite clear whether we're to accept that Leonardo's adoption into the family of his biological father had anything at all to do with his growing into the towering genius of the Renaissance, the problems are almost entirely lost in the elegance and theatrical brilliance of the production.
So many things are strikingly well done here that it's difficult to list them all. The foundation, perhaps, is Kim Nielsen's lovely set: a wonderfully elegant shaped acting floor, just slightly curved across the stage, and rising gently, like a wave, to our right, with just a hint of a curled crest at the back corner; downstage from that, the floor divides, with the front part rising less, and behind it a space which served, later on, as a creekbed (with, when needed, real water that Bartolomeo can scoop up in his hands). I thought of Frank Gehry's use of architectural curves. Against the back wall, sepia-tinted back-projections of Leonardo paintings and sketches appear, to illuminate, punctuate, and occasionally shape the action. We begin, for instance, not with the monumental Last Supper -- the painting Fr. Bartolomeo will be contemplating -- but with the eyes, just the eyes, of the Mona Lisa, observing us all. Curtains, and sections of curtains, and sometimes more substantial shapes, drop instantly from the flies, do their job, and whisk out of sight. Elegant Renaissance costumes and props match the colours of the back projections -- indeed, at times we can hardly tell the difference. Meiro Stamm's lovely faux-Renaissance score punctuates the action and sets moods firmly.
In this arbitrary and artificial space, R. H. Thompson creates a continuous, seamless dance of action, moving his characters around with authority, never leaving them without a reason for being where they are, reclining them on the floor or placing them up on what becomes the dizzying height of the lip of the right-hand wave (at some points this becomes the mountain to which Caterina, Leonardo's mother, retreats to raise her bastard child), or moving them down to the practical, everyday concerns of the village, where Leonardo's father's new wife, Albiera, frets about her barrenness, and her father-in-law worries about his sons, and the practical concerns of life in fifteenth-century Tuscany are dominant.
In this context, the six-person acting company -- none of whom have ever appeared on the Playhouse stage before -- can hardly help but be solid. Gabe Bettio's village priest is wonderfully vulnerable, understanding, and occasionally angry at his boyhood friend Piero's casual attitudes about sex and fatherhood and friendship. Piero, as played by Phi Bulani, is charming, confused and ultimately reasonable: we can see in the toss of his head the struggle in him about doing what's right for his family, his father, his wife, and the servant girl who is the father of his child. The father, Antonio, is played by Rex Southgate as Sean-Connery mature, occasionally cynical, interested in what Renaissance heads of families were always interested in: continuity, inheritance, the dynasty, keeping up appearances. Jason Jazrawy is solid and sympathetic as Piero's brother -- the second son, marginalized and irresponsible and occasionally saying what has to be said. Piero's wife, the hapless Albiera, pathetically praying for fecundity, knowing that Piero married her and not her more attractive older sister in order to spite his father and assert his own will, is played with jittery, hysterical and sometimes comic intensity by Jody Stevens.
The most important character in the play, and the one we see most (except for our guide and narrator, Fr. Bartolomeo) is Caterina, Leonardo's mother. If Stavroula Logothettis seems a little mature and angular to be entirely convincing as the servant girl who simply can't resist, though she knows all the reasons she should, the unattainable charm of the charismatic Piero, she nonetheless gives the role a solid, thoughtful, and intense intelligence.
The play, of course, turns on the sacrifice Caterina has to make: we see her relating to the tantalizingly offstage child, the preternaturally brilliant Leonardo, and we understand, at least theoretically, how difficult it will be for her to make the choice of Solomon, to walk into the chalk circle and not pull her son out. It's here, if anywhere, that there's a weakness in the evening, and in some ways it's central. In the last scene, when Caterina finally makes the decision, there's not much sense of the real difficulty of it. One might think it's a matter of the way in which Logothettis characterizes Caterina: we certainly don't think of her as indecisive. But there are also difficulties with the script; I'm not convinced that author Maureen Hunter has actually solved the problem of making this choice seem as powerfully moving as, say, Grusha's inability to hold on to the baby in Brecht's play. Of course, in some ways the play's focus is actually on the mechanisms and politics of family, the way social structures trump humanity. But this leaves a hollow at the center of the drama, a void of feeling where Caterina's pain might have been.
And there is, of course, the central decision to leave Leonardo out altogether. Tantalizing us with the child just barely off stage, Hunter's script tosses us the challenge of caring about someone seen only through the eyes of others, and I'm not sure she succeeds.
Theatre New Brunswick, however, has given us as good a chance as we're ever likely to have to be engaged by Hunter's play, and in the process has demonstrated again what magic there can be in a few bodies and a couple of objects in a place where everything is significant, and intended.