Renaissance painter Sandro Botticelli’s “The Birth of Venus” is a painting famous for its youthful beauty and artistic mastery. When I stood in front of it in Florence, I struggled to look away – which is exactly how I felt about Botticelli in the Fire, Woolly Mammoth’s new show about a queer and vivacious painter struggling to make art in a world that’s increasingly hostile. The cast, led by the riveting Jon Hudson Odom as Botticelli, convincingly portrays characters whose struggles mirror our own in 2018.
Botticelli in the Fire is inspired by historical events, but don’t expect an accurate portrayal of Florence in the 1400s. In this mashup of the real Botticelli’s Florence and the 21st century, characters switch their period-appropriate gowns and doublets with modern leisurewear. Botticelli himself texts and goes to brunch when he’s not painting one of the greatest Renaissance masterpieces.
When the play opens, Botticelli is in his artistic and personal prime. Florence’s leading family, the Medicis, has commissioned a massive painting from him. The suave, bisexual, and hard-partying Botticelli has many lovers, a group that soon includes Clarice (Orsini) di Medici. But three other people complicate Botticelli and Clarice’s affair. One: Lorenzo, Clarice’s husband, doesn’t know that Botticelli is doing more than just painting his wife’s portrait. Two: Girolamo Savonarola, a radical and homophobic preacher, is gaining power in a city stricken by plague and poverty. Three: Botticelli may have feelings for his promising apprentice, Leo (that is, Leonardo da Vinci)–and Leo may return those feelings.
With the stage thus set, Odom as Botticelli takes charge. He’s every bit the bohemian artist, and Odom channels the flamboyant charm of Purple Rain-era Prince in each scene. But Botticelli is layered: he’s also selfish and willfully ignorant of turbulent Florentine politics. Odom’s face is so expressive that each twitch of the lips or the eyebrows signals something. Botticelli frequently breaks the fourth wall to comment on the narrative, so lighting designer Colin K. Bills gives Odom dramatic spotlights that underscore the actor’s talents.
Odom is joined by equally talented supporting actors. Alyssa Wilmoth Keegan is magnetic as witty, hard-to-read socialite Clarice di Medici. Cody Nickell’s demented Lorenzo di Medici reads like a stray Owen Wilson character who’s wandered off the set of a Wes Anderson movie. Earl T. Kim and Dawn Ursula add emotional depth as Botticelli’s best friend (Poggio) and mother, respectively. James Crichton as the young Leo is winningly naïve – until he isn’t. Finally, Craig Wallace as Savonarola is a combination of modern politicians: Wallace’s portrayal combines the fiery delivery of Bernie Sanders with the cruelty and bigotry of Donald Trump.
Marti Lyons’ direction is sharp and bold, and she keeps the tension as taut as a rope. While the actors do turn to oversized gestures and caricature more often than they should, that’s forgivable given the cast’s talent.
Jordan Tannahill’s script paints portraits as compelling as its protagonist’s art, but it does stumble on occasion. Botticelli and Poggio sometimes crack so many lewd jokes that a few scenes veer into sitcom territory. Additionally, Savonarola only has a few scenes, and the character could have used more stage time – as well as more character depth – to justify his villainy. While Madre Maria (Botticelli’s mother) is both funny and moving, she pops in and out of the narrative like a bizarre guardian angel.
Luckily, the technical aspects of Botticelli in the Fire make up for any places where the script fails to deliver. Ivania Stack’s costumes are a perfect blend of modern and period pieces, and the squash outfits are a particularly nice touch. Christian Frederickson, as sound designer and composer, created choral rounds whose lyrics came out of da Vinci’s anatomical writings. The music heightens scenes that are already sexual into sensuous, artistic expressions of beauty. Misha Kachman’s visually arresting set features thin strips of black reflective plastic that line the three sides of the proscenium theater. The strips not only move organically, but throw back Colin K. Bills’ lighting at the actors and audience. When Savonarola’s Bonfire of the Vanities begins, (the burning of the art and literature of Florence in massive bonfires), orange light glints ominously from the shifting darkness of the set. I did wish that Bills’ lighting took advantage of that backdrop more frequently, though.
Botticelli in the Fire is a play whose whole is greater than the sum of its parts, at least in 2018. As unrest threatens to boil over in Florence, and Savonarola speaks out against “faggots” (a slur I use here because the show artfully deconstructs how violent it is), Botticelli refuses to leave. He believes that things can’t possibly be so terrible, that the Medicis will protect him from Savonarola’s populist base. But one terrifying scene shows that no one is exempt from a hate so fiery, so irrational, that it knows no bounds.
But while Botticelli in the Fire’s Italy is alarmingly close to our United States, it’s also hopeful. The scene with Botticelli and Leo hiding ends with them making love on the floor of Botticelli’s studio in defiance of the fires outside. “From below the chin to the top of the head is one-eighth of the height of a man,” a voice intones from the shadows, quoting from the Vitruvian Man drawing that Leo has yet to make. “From below the foot to below the knee is a quarter of the height of a man.” As the two men memorize each other’s proportions, they find solace in a connection that is creative as well as sexual.
It’s hard to imagine a better show than Botticelli in the Fire to see during Pride Month.
Running Time: Two hours and 15 minutes, with a fifteen-minute intermission.