The point is made several times: The portrait that has captivated the world for 500 years, arguably the most famous painting in history, is merely “oil on wood.” But when Leonardo da Vinci applied the wood with 30 layers of oil paint, he created an image of La Gioconda, the silk merchant’s wife with the inscrutable smile, that continues to fascinate us.
The alchemy of art and the mystique that surrounds this particular portrait are captured in Finding Mona Lisa, a wry, liberty-taking history of the painting by the prolific Michael McKeever, now receiving its world premiere at Coral Gables’ Actors’ Playhouse.
In non-chronological order, we meet an American couple who travel to Paris, so she can view the painting in person, despite the indifference of her cloddish husband who would rather be in Cleveland at the Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame. We listen in on a cross-cultural phone call between disdainful U.S. and French bureaucrats negotiating the conditions for the painting to come to Washington, at the request of then-First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy.
Fortunately, no damage befell the painting on that visit here, in contrast to a vandalism incident at the Louvre and an out-and-out theft, both of which McKeever dramatizes. We see the painting’s most renowned caretaker, Napoleon Bonaparte, who hangs it in his bedroom as seduction inspiration. And finally, we see the first meeting between da Vinci and his subject, called simply “Lisa,” as he poses her in his studio, rejecting the adornments that interfere with her natural beauty.
McKeever has written a chamber theater piece to showcase an ensemble of six, each of whom plays several characters during the 90-minute, intermissionless evening. Typical of the versatile cast is Tom Wahl, who plays that schlubby Francophobic husband, the exasperated federal functionary and – under a lot of facial hair – da Vinci himself.
Irene Adjan is a standout as the painting-fixated tourist who has a very French seductive encounter while walking through the Tuileries. Chaz Mena puckishly plays Napoleon and others, and Anna Lise Jensen is ill-at-ease, yet radiant as Lisa, the reluctant portrait model.
Director David Arisco keeps the production simple, putting the emphasis on McKeever’s storytelling and loosening the reins to allow his performers to flex their comic acting muscles. On a spare set of various platforms, La Gioconda smirks at the proceedings from a center stage easel. And Ellis Tillman aids the movement through the centuries with his period-rich costumes.
Like most art about art, theatergoers will never look at da Vinci’s handiwork the same way after Finding Mona Lisa. It wasn’t, but it might as well have been commissioned by the French Tourist Authority, for you are likely to leave Actors’ Playhouse with an urge to hop a plane and head to the Louvre.
FINDING MONA LISA, Actors’ Playhouse, 280 Miracle Mile, Coral Gables. Through Sunday, Aug. 13. $15-$58. 305-444-9293.