Portrait of Artist and Anachronisms

TIMES STAFF WRITER

For nearly 500 years, admirers have wondered what Leonardo da Vinci was thinking when he bestowed that unforgettable trace of a smile on Mona Lisa. It is hard to imagine an explanation stranger or more fanciful than the one David Davalos concocts in his play, "Daedalus."

The curious can check out a staged reading of "Daedalus" tonight at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa.

Davalos' loosely historical script about Leonardo and his miraculous but uneasy mixture of artistic and scientific genius wound its way to South Coast much as Jed Clampett and his clan made their way to Beverly Hills: Folks just told the playwright that Costa Mesa was the place he and "Daedalus" ought to be.

"Daedalus" was one of four plays showcased in October at the Ashland New Plays Festival in Oregon. Theater pros who attended the festival kept telling Davalos how much "Daedalus" reminded them of "The Beard of Avon," Amy Freed's comical-historical fantasia that speculated on the life and creative inspirations of another Renaissance giant, William Shakespeare. South Coast commissioned Freed's play and gave it a well-received premiere last year. Like Freed, Davalos has fun playing with the elevated language from a lofty long-ago--and bringing it down to earth and close to home with humorous catch phrases and cultural allusions that a modern audience can embrace as its own.

Among those who took a liking to "Daedalus" in Ashland were playwright David Rambo (whose "God's Man in Texas" is at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles) and veteran Los Angeles theater director Art Manke. Rambo's agent took on Davalos as a client and sent his script to South Coast; Manke, a co-founder of the Glendale classical theater company, A Noise Within, also pitched the script to South Coast and will direct the reading.

Davalos, who grew up in San Antonio, was chatty and delighted as he spoke over the phone from his Manhattan apartment about his pending first step as a playwright in the world of major regional theater. He marveled at his fortune in drawing a cast of established A-list stage actors for the reading: Mark Harelik plays Leonardo; Douglas Sills is the ruthless, charismatic warlord, Cesare Borgia; and A Noise Within stalwart Robertson Dean reads the part of Niccolo Machiavelli, the founding theorist of realpolitik.

"I'm a babe in the woods," said Davalos, who is in his mid-30s. "The fact they put together such a powerhouse cast makes it all the more nerve-wracking." In a good way, of course.

Acting was Davalos' first theatrical calling; he began writing plays in 1990 and made raiding the classics his modus operandi.

He turned "Henry V" into "Willie the Slick," a spoof of Bill Clinton's electoral duel with George Bush the elder in 1992. "Richard III" became "Richard the Thug," an unloving homage to Richard M. Nixon. "Julius Caesar" inspired "The Tragedie of Johnnius Carson," in which the stakes were domination over late-night television rather than the Roman republic.

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A Look at Artist's Struggle to Finish What He Starts

"I've essentially apprenticed with Shakespeare by pillaging his grave," Davalos said. Now comes "Daedalus," in which the story is his own speculative invention built from scraps of historical fact. The play began taking shape when Davalos read the biography "Leonardo: The Artist and the Man," by Serge Bramly. He learned that in 1502, Cesare Borgia hired Leonardo as an architect and engineer in charge of inspecting and repairing military fortifications. At the same time, Machiavelli was serving as Borgia's diplomatic advisor. By 1503, for reasons Davalos says are unexplained, Leonardo had abandoned Borgia and affairs of state and returned to his art (he painted the "Mona Lisa" between 1503 and 1505).

In the play, Davalos imagines a Leonardo disillusioned by art--he can't seem to finish what he starts, which the playwright says was a problem for the real Leonardo. He jumps at a chance to work for Borgia, whom Machiavelli immortalized in his handbook for politicians, "The Prince." For Machiavelli, Borgia exemplified effective, pragmatic leadership in which the ends--uniting the balkanized Italian states and freeing them from foreign domination--justify the means--treachery, coercion and bloodshed. Borgia covets Leonardo for his genius at designing weapons--his sketchbook included prototypes for much of the modern arsenal, including submarines, tanks, helicopters and airplanes. As a scientist, Leonardo is seduced by the chance to see his ideas turned into realities, with Borgia footing the bill. As a humanist, Leonardo ultimately recoils at the destruction such realities could wreak in the hands of a Borgia. He abandons the amoral world of war and politics for the ideal one of art.

"I would rather progress dance than march," Leonardo declares after a climactic debate with Machiavelli over whether the ends can truly justify the means--and whether Leonardo can best serve humanity as an artist or an inventor of weapons.

"Temperamentally, I'm more inclined to agree with Leonardo. Science cannot be blindly moving forward because society will find a way to abuse it," Davalos said. "But, realistically, Machiavelli is right. History has proven time and again that realists have an advantage over idealists."

Davalos wanted to have fun with history rather than make his play an archival exercise. Every character is a witty, well-spoken quipster. The dialogue in some passages is grand discourse fit for historical giants, but Davalos also has his characters mouth lines from "The Godfather" and throws in contemporary jokes, anachronisms that could give moderns a chuckle. At one point, Machiavelli wonders whether Leonardo would care to apply his genius to inventing the paper shredder. "That would be especially useful in my line of work." In another instance, Leonardo, disgusted with his fortunes as an artist, hands a patroness a sketch he has made and tells her, "I believe that and three ducats will purchase you a cup of grappa."

"The Masterpiece Theater thing, the elevated language, is closer to poetry," Davalos said. "I wanted to go there, but I wanted to have it both ways by also being colloquial. It's a way of getting the audience into the world of the play by showing the parallels and bringing the characters closer to our experience."

Davalos said he devotes about half his time to writing, acting and directing; the rest is spent making a living as a freelance designer of graphics used in business presentations. His next play concerns Ambrose Bierce, the acerbic journalist and fiction writer who disappeared in 1913 after riding off to join the Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa.

"The more research I do into [Bierce's] life and disappearance and his fiction, the more it seems they are speaking to us now," Davalos said.

"The trick is to tell a historical story, but tell it so the audience doesn't feel as though they are looking at an artifact."

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"Daedalus," South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. Tonight at 7:30. $8. (714) 708-5555.

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