BWW Review: BOTTICELLI IN THE FIRE at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company is Entirely Unique
For a thought-provoking and entirely unique theatergoing experience look no further than Jordan Tannahill's Botticelli in the Fire - the last entry in Woolly Mammoth's 2017-2018 season. Avid Woolly audience members are accustomed to having the opportunity to see plays that you probably wouldn't find in many other area theaters seasons, and this one is no exception. It pushes artistic boundaries while still being entirely relevant to today's audiences hungry for astute socio-political commentary within their entertainment choices. Featuring a compelling script, some of the best acting you're bound to see anywhere locally (most notably from Jon Hudson Odom) under the swift and inspired direction by Marti Lyons, and strong production elements (even music!), this is an unpredictable "only at Woolly" experience you won't want to miss. It's especially perfect for Pride Month.
This daring Canadian import play seamlessly melds the past and the present, taking inspiration from real characters in history. It's the late 15th century, but the characters we meet text with one another, travel in limos, sing pop songs, and more. Yet, they also deal with issues (plague) that are foreign to many today.
Sandro Botticelli (Jon Hudson Odom) was a humanist artistic force in 15th century Renaissance Florence. In Tannahill's retelling, he's a bit of a sex-crazed Rockstar known for pushing the boundaries of acceptability in not only his paintings, but also his life. He's been that way since birth as his Madre Maria (Dawn Ursula) tells it. As an adult, he gets away with a lot more than the average gay artist (like his friend Poggio du Chullu, played by the fabulous Earl T. Kim) due to his relationship with Lorenzo de Medici (an appropriately self-absorbed Cody Nickell), the defacto ruler of Florence. The people of Florence are literally trying to survive terrible living conditions and fight off the plague. Yet, Lorenzo is more concerned with retaining his luxurious lifestyle than using his considerable resources to improve the quality of life of the masses, and fight poverty, filth, and sickness that has overtaken the city. He's all for taking advantage of all opportunities for personal gain even if it means engaging in corrupt and unsavory behavior.
Lorenzo likes to flaunt his wealth, power and connections so he commissions a new painting of his beautiful wife Clarice Orsini (the multi-talented Alyssa Wilmoth Keegan) from Sandro. Clarice gets very intimate with Sandro during her many sittings, which threatens his favor with Lorenzo. Sandro's exceptionally talented apprentice Leonardo Da Vinci (James Crichton) assists Sandro in creating a painting that looks like nothing else that has been painted in Florence to date. Sandro has feelings for Leonardo, but - when he's out of options - will he sacrifice him to survive?
At the same time Lorenzo and Sandro are having relationship troubles, there's a strong movement in the city led by the friar Girolamo Savonarola (Craig Wallace) to push for reform and speak out against the Medici family. The people are so disenchanted with their leader and the state of life in Florence that opportunities begin to emerge for the conservative, religious leaders to gain more of a following. Some become convinced that if they weed out sin, then life will be better for everyone. Gay men are even burned at the stake. Sandro is faced with some choices - difficult ones - because he's no longer covered with Teflon. What does this mean for art, his relationship with Leonardo, and his legacy?
The cast is more than equipped to tell this difficult story. They embrace each of their characters' larger than life personalities with reckless abandon and collectively give one of the best ensemble performances of the year.
Odom's character has the biggest arc and the biggest load by far. He handles it with ease, turning in a performance that needs to be rewarded (hear that, Helen Hayes Awards - don't screw up). Sandro is a player of the biggest kind when we first meet him, which is a far cry from how he presents himself as the story progresses and he's confronted with realities he has - up to that point - escaped. He exudes chemistry with every actor and they are all his match in every scene.
The acting is first-rate, but so are the production elements. Micha Kachman's minimalist set has a perfect artsy flair. Ivania Stack's bold and colorful costumes are a perfect match for every character. They mix the historical and the modern, reinforcing the play's message that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Colin K. Bills' and Christian Frederickson's lighting and composition/sound designs, respectively, highlight the party-like atmosphere that draws Sandro and his friends in. Bills' lighting serves one pivotal scene (there's fire...) especially well and Fredrickson's compositions are some of the best examples of how expertly this production handles the past vs. present balance.
While the show is more than a little quirky and edgy, I'd recommend the production wholeheartedly. Regardless of your own identity and preference, there's much to internalize and appreciate in this play. It's exceptionally relevant in today's America, sadly.
Running Time: Two hours and fifteen minutes with one intermission.
BOTTICELLI IN THE FIRE plays at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company - 641 D Street, NW in Washington, DC - through June 24, 2018. For tickets, call the box office at 202-393-3939 or purchase them online.