In Botticelli in the Fire, the first part of a new double bill by 2014 Governor General's Award-winner Jordan Tannahill, we have a revisionist romp, a send up of the stuffy conservatism historical drama usually endures.
Set during the early Renaissance, in a plague-ridden Florence where gay people are persecuted and burned as ungodly, the play reimagines how artist and Epicurean Sandro Botticelli (Salvatore Antonio) produced his masterwork The Birth of Venus but later gave up painting altogether under the influence of the extremist friar Savanarola (Alon Nashman).
In this version, Venus is modelled by Clarice de’ Medici (Nicola Correia-Damude), who uses her family’s power to sleep with Botticelli to the ignorance of her psycho husband Lorenzo (Christopher Morris), the portrait's commissioner. The painter’s apprentice and lover, Leonardo Da Vinci (Stephen Jackman-Torkoff), struggles to remain faithful through Clarice’s cuckolding ways.
The greatest thing about Botticelli in the Fire is that it lives in your grill and intends on staying there as good satire should. It repackages official history into a shambles made with care, a raised chin and a smile as if to say, “You got a problem with that?”
Modernization is approached with a middle finger in the air.
Botticelli’s meta asides, mic always in hand, are oversaturated and smooshed right up against whatever’s happening like a face against a car window.
Cheap sitcom punch lines recur until they become self-mocking, but also serve as characters’ mental barriers from the disease outside. Botticelli comes up from going down on Clarice and says, “When I suggested we eat out, I meant breakfast.” Also, in a scene from the past, Maria (Valerie Buhagiar), the painter’s mother, seeks the advice of a priest when her then baby son won’t stop touching himself, and the priest says, “Bring him to me in seven years, I’ll take care of him myself.”
Talk shows, Wonder Bread, and the colloquial effects texting has on characters’ speech round off what Tannahill describes as the joyfully apocryphal.
Disregarding sophisticated integration, these contemporary touches are full-blown live-action Histeria, egging your sense of wonder on, and on, and on.
Not wanting to be left behind, James Lavoie’s costumes fold grace into subversion, turning Jackman-Torkoff into a 15th century Michael Jackson and Morris into Leigh Bowery from the neck down.
Probably the most biting, modern aspect of Botticelli in the Fire is how weighty moments, such as Maria’s recollection of her son’s dream of having the plague, are spoken with the gloss of fairy tales and disconnected from their emotional potential.
Praise goes to Antonio and Jackman-Torkoff for their spontaneity and for downright wringing the most out of their scene partners from beginning to end. What could have been a reactionary, middle-of-the-road effort opts for the long view, taming political and religious fundamentalism into conquerable myths.
In a similarly provocative vein, Sunday in Sodom revisits the fall of Sodom and Gomorrah through the eyes of Edith (Buhagiar), the woman unnamed in the bible, who turned to salt for looking back as God levelled her hometown.
She narrates the minutiae of domestic life in and around the time she turned to NaCl, in juicy detail. Her nephew Isaac (Jackman-Torkoff), son of Abraham, calls her for help after Abraham tries to kill him; her husband, Lot (Nashman), is a patriarchal bastard who expects to be waited on 24/7; and her daughter, Sahrah (Correia-Damude), balances a newborn and her studies with an obstinacy brought on by her second-class status in her own house.
Superimposed on this biblical tale is a storyline in which Edith and her family are natives of an unnamed country The West is currently at war with. They’re visited by two soldiers, Derek (Morris) and Chris (Antonio), the latter injured and in need of urgent care. The presence of the soldiers rouses suspicion among neighbours and places the family in an untenable situation.
Buhagiar’s performance, during which she is frozen in place from curtain to curtain, could not be more high-stakes. Edith forges an arsenal to guard the dignity of her household and ridicule traditional female domesticity out of nothing more than vocal inflections and facial expressions. Facing ahead, she can never physically look her loved ones in the eyes; yet, her authority is undeniable and uncanny, with details true to the complexity of experience, like when Lot picks a fight with her about it being too early to flip their couch into a bed because he might still want to sit on it before retiring for the night.
It’s Edith’s feminist resilience, delivered boldly and with a love for the role, that makes Sunday in Sodom an act of reclamation that lives up to the proportions of the book it comes from.
Botticelli in the Fire and Sunday in Sodom run until May 15 at the Berkeley Street Theatre. For more information, visit https://www.canadianstage.com/.