Fans of Jordan Tannahill’s work, including his 2015 book Theatre of the Unimpressed: In Search of Vital Drama—a screed against the ubiquity of the well-made play and the modern theatre’s propensity to workshop the risk of failure out of every script—know better than to walk into Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company’s U.S. premiere production of Botticelli in the Fire expecting a run-of-the-mill period piece.
And this may not be the darling of Canada’s avant-garde theatre scene’s most experimental work, it does deliver a delightful romp through history full of anachronism, unabashed queerness, and a gleeful disregard for even the concept of a fourth wall—all of which adds up to an explosive kick-off to Pride Month.
While the presentation may be thoroughly modern, Tannahill’s story has its roots in the 15th Century. Sandro Botticelli (the captivating and quippy Jon Hudson Odom) is the flamboyant and amorous enfant terrible of Renaissance Florence. He has been commissioned by Lorenzo de’ Medici (a casually menacing Cody Nickell), along with his twink-y protégé and paramour, Leonardo Da Vinci (the adorably earnest James Crichton), to paint his wife, Clarice Orsini (a bold-yet-yearning Alyssa Wilmoth Keegan).
It sounds straightforward enough, but Sandro is faced with a myriad of obstacles, some of his own making, others not. He’s carrying on affair with Clarice during their sessions, while trying to dodge her jealous husband; he’s painting her nude, which is sure to cause quite a stir; the city is being ignited into a ruthless mob under the incendiary sermons of the televangelist-esque Girolamo Savonarola (Craig Wallace), with sodomite artists like himself and his fabulous bestie, Poggio di Chullu (Earl T. Kim), as their first targets; and he’s falling head over heels for the beautiful and talented Leo.
Botticelli in the Fire
closes June 24, 2018
Details and tickets
Director Marti Lyons keeps all these balls in the air with a sureness and quick clip, devising clever scene changes and encouraging the cast to use every inch of Misha Kachman’s deceptively simple set. Odom owns the room from the moment he interrupts the curtain speech to the final defiant lick of a knife. He makes it clear that this is his play, and we’re playing by his rules. He seamlessly switches from confident cad to vulnerable lover at the drop of a flat cap. That sometimes his rapid-fire dropping of drag slang feels somewhat forced may have more to do with the script than with Odom’s delivery.
Too-muchness is the watchword of this exuberantly queer re-telling of a classic tale, but it’s the subtler moments that really stand out. For instance, when Crichton’s Leonardo removes Sandro’s shirt and feels every inch of his upper body with his hands while Sandro’s mother (Dawn Ursula) leads a sort of spooky anatomical Gregorian chant, the heady mix of curiosity, intimacy, and lust are nearly palpable. Similarly, Nickell shows skill in a pivotal scene in the second act in which he easily could have gone too broad or telegraphed what was to come, but instead played the moment with an inscrutableness that made his eventual eruption all the more terrifying in its coolness.
Even the rare moment that could be considered a misstep was entertaining. I’m thinking in particular of a hilarious interlude in which Venus herself appears and speaks to the audience. While enjoyable to watch, it comes at an odd time in the story, and left me both wanting more of such breaks sprinkled throughout and wondering if anything would have been lost in cutting it entirely. And the second act, while full of beautiful moments, feels like it drags a bit, especially in comparison to the frenetic first act.
Botticelli in the Fire is bold and ostentatious, tender and beautiful, funny and cutting. It’s a contemporary re-imagining that feels timeless and enduringly relevant to the modern moment. At one point, when confronted with the choice of forsaking his art or his life itself, Sandro reflects, “And that is my duty: to defy ugliness and suffering. If I cannot live for that at least, then honestly? Shoot me in the fucking face.” That’s the true spirit of the Pride season, and as much of a call to action today as it was centuries ago.
Botticelli in the Fire by Jordan Tannahill. Directed by Marti Lyons. Cast: Jon Hudson Odom, Alyssa Wilmoth Keegan, Cody Nickell, Earl T. Kim, Craig Wallace, Dawn Ursula, and James Crichton. Set designer: Misha Kachman. Costume designer: Ivania Stack. Lighting designer: Colin K Bills. Sound designer and composer: Christian Frederickson. Fight choreographer: Robb Hunter. Intimacy coach: Lorraine Ressenger-Slone. Production dramaturg: Kirsten Bowen. Production stage manager: Rachael Danielle Albert. Assistant director: Robyn Rikoon. Assistant stage manager: Leigh Robinette. Produced by Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company. Reviewed by John Bavoso.