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'Measuring Man' starts with da Vinci and then improvises


Leonardo da Vinci has been dead for almost 485 years, but theatergoers can still get to know the Renaissance man, thanks to "movement virtuoso" Daniel Stein and award-winning puppeteer Robert Smythe.

Their first collaborative work, Measuring Man, uses Leonardo as inspiration for a performance that includes puppetry, movement and stand-up comedy and asks the question: "What does it take to risk something and then fail only to risk something again?" - an issue the artist faced thanks to the burden of his unfinished works.

Smythe, founder and artistic director of the Mum Puppettheatre in Philadelphia, met Stein years ago at the International Movement Theatre Festival in Philadelphia and said they "felt like we were twins separated at birth." The meeting set the stage for their future collaboration and eventual return to Baltimore.

In 1999, Smythe was facing a deadline for funding and decided to call Stein at Dell'Arte International School of Physical Theatre in California to see whether the time was right to work together. Stein thought it was and, thanks to a book on da Vinci on his desk, quickly suggested their subject. Without hesitation, Smythe agreed.

The show premiered at Mum Puppettheatre the next year and led, 3 1/2 years later, to this week's re-introduction of the piece at Theatre Project, where both artists, and director Fred Curchack, have performed separately in the past.

Smythe appeared at Theatre Project in 1990 in his From the Ashes, which received great reviews and sent him and his co-stars running down the streets screaming with delight. Stein was in Baltimore with 1985's Inclined to Agree and 1989's Windowspeak.

Both are excited about showing the city their ever-evolving piece.

On opposite sides of the country and with ever-changing lifestyles - and artistic styles - Smythe and Stein agree that Measuring Man has improved over the years.

"It's just better," Smythe says. "It just is. Because we're better."

Stein, now 51, agrees, saying his priorities and his philosophy have changed, influencing the piece's continuing gestation.

Smythe emphasizes that the piece is not a Leonardo biography. Considering the Renaissance artist's enigmatic personality, no one really knows what he was like, he says.

"Everyone can respect the anguish of hopes and dreams and the ability to get back up and try again," Smythe said. "That we keep on going despite defeat."

Even with such contemplative themes, Measuring Man is sure to surprise viewers since much of the performance is a surprise to the performers themselves, shaped by their state of mind at the moment.

"There's not a tomorrow my style hasn't changed," Stein says. "You have to continually evolve, or you die."

With the artists' styles continuously changing, the work's goals and themes inevitably change, too.

"The show is what everyone brings to it," he says. "We agree to show up at 8 o'clock and then see what happens."

"Measuring Man" runs at 8 p.m. today-Saturday and at 3 p.m. Sunday at Theatre Project 45 W. Preston St. (near the intersection of Preston and Cathedral streets). Tickets are $15-$20; call the Theatre Project Box Office at 410-752-8558.

For more theater, classical music and dance events, see Page 36.

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