No idea if they picked it with Pride in mind, but it definitely works for Pride.
Botticelli in the Fire, the new play going on now until June 24 at Woolly Mammoth, takes lots of anachronistic indulgences with its subject matter — namely the painting of “The Birth of Venus” in 15th century Florence — mostly along the lines of highlighting or celebrating its queerness. Our main character and far-from-humble-narrator, Sandro Botticelli, isn’t just a successful Renaissance painter fond of orgies and wine, he also texts with his gaggle of gay friends and enjoys rides in the Medicis’ limousine. These artsy-set queens don’t just stay out all night partying, they do it to club music.
Botticelli is the most successful and promiscuous artist in town, but he bites off more than he can chew with a commission from the Medici family. His ill-advised affair with Mrs. De Facto Queen of Florence could cost him his life — or his genitals — even if the inflammatory nude portrait he does of her alighting from a giant clam shell doesn’t do it first. Compounding the dangers are a resurgent plague running through the city, a conservative religious uprising frustrated with the “out-of-touch” ruling class, and a sexy new apprentice named Leonardo … Leonardo Da something, I wanna say Vinci.
As written by Jordan Tannahill and directed by Marti Lyons, the tragicomedy that follows is part Amadeus (a long-dead artist walks us through a major creation while keeping a skeptical eye on the heavens), and part Moulin Rouge (see above re: anachronisms played for maximum fabulousness). You’ll appreciate how lightly Tannahill and Lyons lean on the modern-day parallels for plagues and anti-elitism. It all builds toward a devastating climax with the Bonfire of the Vanities; you’ll get no spoilers from me, but it is worth keeping in mind: “Birth of Venus” currently hangs in the Uffizi Gallery.
Jon Hudson Odom plays the title character — or, both, really: He brings the Botticelli and the fire. It’s tough to tell whether he’s more likable in his apron, bringing forth artistic triumph on the canvas, or wrapped up in a tennis sweater, squirming under the Medicis’ thumb. Odom anchors the show, and he anchors it well, but in this cast of seven there are no weak links.
As muse, temptress, and voice of civic reason Clarice Orsini, Alyssa Wilmoth Keegan is a breathtaking mix of entitled and lived-in — you hang on her every word. Her partner in upper-crust crime, Lorenzo Di Medici, is a fun look for actor Cody Nickell. Nickell plays his evil role as believably stressed and full of internal turmoil: He has no fun with the menace, or no more than he should. Ditto Craig Wallace as the pontificating monk Girolamo Savanarola, a bigot who never realizes he’s promising all the easy answers.
Very few plays have enough of D.C. actress Dawn Ursula in them, certainly not this one. But as Botticelli’s mother, she fills her scenes with a well-honed warmth that never ignores how the world works. And the show’s most welcome surprise might be Earl T. Kim, making his Washington-area debut as the flamboyant Poggio du Chullu, a loving heart never entirely hidden behind a limp wrist.
Doing the most subtle work of all is James Crichton, who never tries to overreach to show us Da Vinci’s genius. He quietly performs the man instead, and his scenes with Odom’s Botticelli show without telling until the very end.
A fine compliment to all involved: This play made me want to go spend hours and hours at a museum. And maybe a club.