As the house lights dim, and a typical recording begins, reminding the audience to turn off their cellphone, a man walks to the stage from the back of the audience, a bottle of alcohol in hand.
“Turn off your f–king cell phones,” he quips. “If I hear a ding, I’ll kill you.” He reaches the stage and the silver streamers that glow a fiery orange fade.
The theatre is dark, only Jon Hudson Odom’s Sandro Botticelli is seen, with a sharp spotlight carving his skin like it is a sculpture, like it is painted on an acrylic canvas.
“This is not just a play,” Odom tells the audience. “It’s an extravaganza.”
Canadian playwright Jordan Tannahill’s play spans the creation of Botticelli’s notorious “The Birth of Venus,” commissioned by banker and ruler of Florence Lorenzo de’ Medici to portray his wife Clarice Orsini. In “The Birth of Venus,” Orsini is the muse—her bright red hair like fire, her nude body scandalous to 15th century audiences. Yet when Leonardo tells Botticelli that Venus is not just the goddess of beauty, but also defined by being always dissatisfied, Venus becomes someone else.
At the start of the play, Botticelli tells the audience “I was a dog. A dog doesn’t understand moderation.” His mother warns of his indulgence, referencing a recurring motif of his emphatic licking of a peanut butter slathered knife. When bodies are carried away by hooded figures and protestors take to the streets, he enjoys the luxury and protection of the Medici residency. During intimate scenes, and then again when he burns his art, white rose petals fall from the ceiling and lie limp scattering the stage.
Botticelli’s Venus is born in the play. And, then, also reborn.
The painting itself is on a large canvas that serves as a backdrop to scenes. It is blank at the start—the audience only sees its back. After a glimpse at the work in its completion, the painting is splattered in red. Its stand resembles a cross, which Botticelli and Orsini make love against.
In this raw set, the actors, especially standouts Odom and Earl T. Kim, who plays his electric best friend Poggio, color the stage. If Botticelli’s canvas is the hearth for “The Birth of Venus,” the stage is the site for his own birth, which he himself crafts through—sometimes gimmicky, but often impactful—fourth wall breaking narration and other characters’ spot lit comments.
The relationship between Botticelli and his mother, played by Dawn Ursula is especially compelling. In perhaps the most powerful moment of the play, right before the intermission, Madre Maria describes proportions of a man’s body in staccato like rhythm while her son makes love. At the end, in a pietá moment, when she cradles Botticelli in her arms and washes him, it is as if he is being reborn, as if he is emerging from the political chaos and bloodshed that he narrowly survived. The play critiques the dogma of religion, but its protagonist feels, in juxtaposition to his own character, deeply religious.
Botticelli in the Fire is a shiny extravaganza, but it is also dark and disturbing—Botticelli paints a commissioned piece for the Medici (“Corrupt elite” leadership, in the words of their political enemy, populist law and order preacher Girolamo Savonarola.) while protestors afflicted by the plague mourn a crumbling and impious society, eventually burning queer people.
When Botticelli’s apprentice and love interest James Crichton’s benevolent and lovable Leonardo Da Vinci is sold out to the Medicis in exchange for his own saving, the young boy, half lit on a dark stage on his hands and knees, pleads to God: “If I am a sodomite than what are you—If I am a sodomite, what the f–k are you.”
The play is not historically accurate. The playbill says so. And, Botticelli at the end tells the audience he will alter the plot to better reflect his ideal outcome. Yet even in its glossy extravagance and removed time period and its sometimes banal juxtaposition to modern day (texting, for instance) it feels deeply human and real. It is unclear which politician is more of a villain—the corrupt banker or the dogmatic populist—but play’s flawed Botticelli’s command of the stage is always the magnetic centerpiece.
Botticelli in the Fire is at the Woolly Mammoth Theatre, located at 641 D St NW, through June 24.