LA Review: 'Divine Rivalry'

at the Old Globe

Reviewed by Katherine Davis

July 22, 2012

Photo by Henry Di Rocco
History buffs and lovers of Renaissance art will appreciate "Divine Rivalry," a world-premiere production at San Diego's Old Globe, but the play needs polishing. The story, which is based on real-life events in 16th-century Florence, centers on young politician Niccolo Machiavelli. In an attempt to win favor with the people of Florence, he decides to commission Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo Buonarroti, two of the most famous artists of the time, to paint complementary murals side by side in a grand Renaissance publicity stunt. Of course, with artistic passions and competitive spirits running high, Machiavelli's scheme does not go exactly according to plan.

Playwrights Michael Kramer and D.S. Moynihan did extensive historical research, and often that is too obvious. The first act overwhelms the audience with exposition, name-dropping, and recitations of historical tidbits. As a result, the characters don't converse naturally, and many scenes come off as choppy, forced, or awkward. The situation improves in Act 2, as the characters talk less about history and more about their personal philosophies, but even then the script gives the actors almost nothing to do onstage. Director Michael Wilson's staging is often visually boring, with the actors standing in line delivering long philosophical speeches to one another. Unfortunately, that's about all the script allows.

The four actors are no doubt very capable, but the stiff script and direction have resulted in stilted performances. In a play about the clashing passions of great minds, the sense of distinct personalities is missing. Miles Anderson, as da Vinci, hints at some of the artist's eccentricities and creates the strongest character. Euan Morton, as Michelangelo, gives us a bit of the artist's sniveling devoutness, just not quite enough. The scene the two actors share at the beginning of the second act as da Vinci and Michelangelo struggle to work side by side is the show's high point.

Sean Lyons took over the role of Machiavelli only days before the opening, so he deserves credit for a solid performance. Still, his onstage presence is monotonous, and the elements of manipulative ruthlessness that have made Machiavelli so famous barely come across. The character of Piero Soderini is the least famous of the historical figures on display, and though David Selby is dignified in the role, he is similarly one-note, and playgoers won't leave knowing anything more about Soderini.

The design elements are hit and miss. Jeff Cowie's boxy gray set is a little uninspiring for a play about artists. There are some impressive props, however; da Vinci's prototype flying machine is especially cool. Peter Nigrini's projections of Renaissance masterpieces provide helpful reference points during the play's lengthy musings on art, but at times they feel overdesigned. The short video projections providing history at the beginning and during the epilogue are particularly over the top.

On the whole, "Divine Rivalry" provides an interesting look at an exciting moment in history and sheds light on well-loved artists. As it is now, though, it is no great masterpiece.

Presented by and at the Old Globe, 1363 Old Globe Way, San Diego. July 12–Aug. 5. Tue. and Wed., 7 p.m.; Thu.–Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 and 7 p.m. (No performance Sat., July 28; additional performance Wed., Aug. 1, 2 p.m.) (619) 234-5623 or Casting by Tesley + Company/Will Cantler.

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