On the most basic level, part of all creativity is probably rooted in play. The spark of imagination and invention can't be far removed from the impulse to make believe, or to simply say, "What if?"
Playing around - even child's play - is central to Measuring Man, Daniel Stein and Robert Smythe's intriguingly irreverent show about Leonardo da Vinci, running through tomorrow at the Theatre Project.
Both men - and their director and co-creator, Fred Curchack - are accomplished theater artists whose history with the Theatre Project dates back more than a decade. This show, however, which debuted in 2000, marked the first time the three collaborated, and their evident delight in working together seems to parallel da Vinci's delight in his own inventiveness.
Indeed, the 70-minute piece is more of an investigation into the joys - and frustrations - of art and creativity than a biographical or documentary look at da Vinci. Smythe, founder and artistic director of Philadelphia's Mum Puppettheatre (which produced Measuring Man), contributes his puppet skills; Stein, a mime and movement artist, contributes his fluidly expressive body language.
Here are some examples of the childlike wonder they bring to their investigation of da Vinci's genius: Smythe creates a doll-like puppet whose body and limbs consist of rolled-up newspaper pages and whose head is a wad of newspaper covered with tape. Sometimes Smythe makes happy, high-pitched exaltations of glee for the puppet, but not all of his puppet-play is cheerful.
In a section about da Vinci's practice of performing illegal dissections, Smythe rips the puppet apart. Inside the head, he finds a copy of the artist's sole self-portrait, as if to suggest that da Vinci was trying not only to discover how the human body worked in general terms, but also how he himself worked.
Stein, meanwhile, does his best to distract Smythe and the audience with everything from an irreverent commentary on the Last Supper to various hoary mime stunts (pretending to be trapped behind glass or tugging at one arm until it's longer than the other).
He also has a way of becoming the victim of whatever prop he happens to be using - a metal measuring tape extended across the floor (representing da Vinci's penchant for measurements) or a long stick that simulates wings (representing da Vinci's interest in flight).
Flight is a recurring motif in Measuring Man. The piece opens with a quote from da Vinci's notebooks: "This is triumphant. We have found a way to fly by letting go." Near the end, however, the two men appear thwarted and angry. Stein covers his head with crumpled newspapers, which make him resemble the puppet. Smythe tries to manipulate him as if he were the puppet, but when this appears to go nowhere, they split apart and yell.
Then they reach toward each other. Stein is holding a long stick and Smythe a rolled newspaper, and both lift these props as if they were wings. In the final moment, they look skyward - their interest, desire and, most importantly, their hope, in flight have been rekindled, and in the spirit of da Vinci, their imaginations have once again taken flight.
Where: Theatre Project, 45 W. Preston St.
When: 8 tonight, 3 p.m. tomorrow