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Botticelli in the Fire & Sunday in Sodom: there is always a fire


by Drew Rowsome -
Photos by Cylla von Tiedemann


Botticelli in the Fire and Sunday in Sodom continue until Sun, May 15 at the Berkeley Street Theatre, 26 Berkeley St. canadianstage.com

The first and most important thing to know about the double bill of Botticelli in the Fire and Sunday in Sodom, is that they are accessible and highly entertaining. The evening is impossible to describe without lapsing into theatrespeak, but that shouldn't discourage or frighten: while Jordan Tannahill is pushing at the boundaries of conventional theatre, he is doing so wittily and in a manner that enhances the theatricality. As Botticelli announces in his preamble to Botticelli in the Fire, his ostensible biography, "It's not just a play, it's an extravaganza."

Botticelli, a marvelously debauched and appealing Salvatore Antonio, also assures the audience that it is "not another tortured fag artist story." And, despite being apparently soused, he is right: the tortures are presented in a matter-of-fact manner that makes them all the more horrific. The plague is raging and Friar Savanarola is blaming it on sinners, lovers of beauty, the elite, and, particularly, "sodomites." The populace has become a mob and the sodomites are being burned at the stake.

Botticelli - whose introduction and frequent interjections using a hand-held microphone resemble an intoxicated stand-up set by Charles Nelson Reilly or Buddy Cole - must choose between his art, his dubious love for his beautiful assistant (a luminous Stephen Jackman-Torkoff who strips emotionally naked even more than he does physically) and his love of beauty, or surviving. Botticelli hopes the problem will pass, he keeps proclaiming that this is a "progressive" society, but he is told twice, "There is always a plague, there is always a fire, and there is always a friar who wants to throw people in it." 

Botticelli in the Fire is full of anachronisms - cell phones, comical contemporary references, current sexual slang, and an insightful costume design by James Laovie (Pig) that wrings escalating character expression and laughs out of codpieces  - that are amusing and clever, but also drive home the point that "there is always a fire." From ancient plague to recent and still current plague isn't that far a thematic jump and, while it is never hammered home, it is brutally explicit. And it is a message that all queer folk and artists should take to heart: Botticelli in the Fire is compelling as an entertainment but it also has direct bearing on our very existence.

If Botticelli in the Fire drags Oscar Wilde and Noel Coward into the 21st century, Sunday in Sodom is Samuel Beckett torn from ancient tabloids and made mainstream. Valerie Buhagiar delivers a tour de force immobilized monologue that begins, as does Botticelli in the Fire, as intellectual stand-up and becomes a magnificent gut wrenching cry. Again the proceedings are studded with anachronisms the better to shine a light on feminism, war, religious fanaticism, mental health issues and the power, and horror, of love. 

The premise is that Buhagiar is Lot's wife, the one who was turned into a pillar of salt at the destruction of Sodom, and now she tells her story. The comedy and the tragedy grow out of the adherence to, and the deviations from, the biblical text. Again the parallels to today are inescapable, and Buhagiar invests so much subtle emotion into just her voice and face that a real everywoman, everyperson, emerges. An everyperson whose world is, like Botticelli's, being consumed by an irrational horrifying fire.

The two plays zip by, buoyed by an abundance of ideas, stagecraft and wit, but they linger and afterthought makes me want to list the elements that startled or echoed - the itchy soundscape by Samuel Sholdice that links the plays, the use of nudity to emphatically upend gender stereotypes, the stately choreography of the direction by Matjash Mrozewski and Estelle Shook, the matter-of-fact glorious gayness underpinning it all - but it is theatre, and it should be experienced not only read about. The audience shares Botticelli's attempts at perfection, balancing eroticism and ecstasy, while creating The Birth of Venus, and a biblical cautionary tale trying to make sense of a senseless world, and two plays that dive into emotionally similar spaces. 

Botticelli in the Fire and Sunday in Sodom continue until Sun, May 15 at the Berkeley Street Theatre, 26 Berkeley St. canadianstage.com


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