POW! BAM! ZAP! DA VINCI!!
These and other strange noises are expected to echo across the sky at the Center for Puppetry Arts this month now that Avanti Da Vinci, the puppet show that imagines artist Leonardo Da Vinci as a caped crusader superhero, will be restaged for the first time in 17 years. The production, written and directed by Jon Ludwig and Jason Hines, runs until June 25.
Ludwig, the artistic director for the Center, said the suggestion for the zany show began with Hines.
“Basically, the idea came from Jason,” Ludwig recalled. “He said one day, ‘If Da Vinci’s machines worked, he’d be like Batman.’ That intrigued us because, in studying Da Vinci’s life, he was kind of like a masked hero.”
“In a lot of ways, he was,” Hines said. “It was a really fun thing to research and explore. And I guess once we started digging into the germ of an idea, we realized there was a lot of puppet show in this material.”
The show that emerged combined elements of the 1960s Batman sitcom starring Adam West with Da Vinci’s own sketches and notes. There is a helicopter-like vehicle, glider wings and The Vitruvian Man used in a surprising way.
In the plot, Da Vinci confronts the evil, incestuous Borgia family with his contraptions, fighting crime in Venice as “Renaissance Man” while saving local damsel Mona Lisa from danger. It’s farce and wild storytelling, intended to appeal to fans of comics, Da Vinci and puppetry. The show, intended for ages 16 and older, is an absolute blast.
“It’s sort of just fluff, in a way,” Ludwig said. “It’s fun. It’s a chance to show off what we can do in terms of spectacle and melodrama.”
The show makes you feel like a kid again, Hines said.
“It is an adult show, but it’s only an adult show because the ideas are a little more complicated and the story’s a little darker than what we can do for kids,” he said. “But it’s still just silly, and we’re having a really good time being the goofballs we are.”
Da Vinci himself would approve, Ludwig said. Much of the humor comes from the artist’s own notebooks.
“He would appreciate the fart humor because he wrote the fart jokes in the show,” Ludwig said. “There’s a joke where the two henchmen are out in the garden waiting to get Mona Lisa. One farts, and the other guy says ‘I know you’re fond of me. I can tell which way the wind blows and keep track of you.’”
“I think people may be surprised at how much of the wit comes directly from Da Vinci,” Hines said, holding up a large volume of Da Vinci’s collected works. “Of course, we’re appropriating it and twisting it for our means.”
For the creators, revisiting the material has been like a family reunion. Of the five original cast members, four have returned: Ludwig, Hines, Reay Maxwell and Michael Haverty. Puppet and set builders who collaborated on the first productions have returned to prepare the show.
“Putting this back up has really been like time travel,” Hines said. “It’s like opening up an old journal and looking at something you wrote 17 years ago, remembering who you were back then and all the things you were thinking.”
Even the sets and puppets used during the original productions have been pulled from the Center’s warehouse for use. Because it had been carefully packed in shipping containers after two separate Atlanta stagings and a festival performance in Slovakia, Hines said a lot of the pieces were in good condition. And he was reminded that the show is huge.
“I don’t think we understood when we first did it,” he said. “We just didn’t know any better and built something that was just massive, like we just kept going and going, doing what felt right. Now, coming back to it, I look at it in wonder, like ‘How did we do this? There’s so much in the show.’ There was no one who could tell us what we were doing was so big.”
Ludwig continued, “There was no one standing there with a warning sign, not that we would’ve paid any attention. We were gonna make this, no matter what.”
Ludwig, who received the Suzi Bass Lifetime Achievement Award in 2022, has inspired generations of puppeteers with his work.
Maxwell is another cast member excited to return.
“Being asked to join the cast in 2004 was a dream come true,” she said. “My reason for moving to Atlanta was to puppeteer here under Jon. To go to Europe with this show was the most incredible adventure with some of the best artists in this field. I’m privileged to have been in their company all these years.”
This production of Avanti Da Vinci also features two new performers, Evan Phillips and Kristin Storla.
“Bringing new blood into this production has been a real treat,” Maxwell said. “I feel like we have three generations of American puppetry represented on that stage. What a gift to be a part of that.”
Ludwig and Hines said the current show will not be an exact replica of the original production, in part because of the inclusion of new people and what the intervening years have taught them.
“We haven’t added anything substantial,” Ludwig said about the script.
“Not really, but we’re not the same people that we were,” Hines added. “So of course, there are different decisions now. We’re not just trying to recreate it exactly like we did back then. There’s no reason to do that.”
Ludwig said many of the puppeteers have new ideas for the show, including better gags and more heartfelt moments.
Hines bristles at the suggestion that the show has educational value regarding art history and science, saying the primary goal of Avanti Da Vinci is just fun.
“It’s a self-conscious send-up of itself,” he said. “We break the fourth wall all the time and, as we’re telling the story, we have fun with the idea of storytelling. We take theater and comic book forms and put them in a blender.”
Benjamin Carr, a member of the American Theatre Critics Association, is an arts journalist and critic who has contributed to ArtsATL since 2019. His plays have been produced at The Vineyard Theatre in Manhattan, as part of the Samuel French Off-Off Broadway Short Play Festival, and the Center for Puppetry Arts. His novel Impacted was published by The Story Plant in 2021.