Two people stand in red light. On the left is a Black person in contemporary male clothing, with long blonde braids and a wreath of flowers on their head. On the right is a Latino man in a black flowing shirt open deep at the neck and leather pants.
John Payne (left) and Alex Benito Rodriguez in Botticelli in the Fire at First Floor Theater Credit: Evan Hanover

Welcome to Florence, circa 1485, where the Medicis rule by fear and favors—and where their favorite bad-boy artist, Sandro Botticelli, is about to fuck around (literally) and find out.

Canadian playwright/novelist Jordan Tannahill’s Botticelli in the Fire premiered in 2018, before COVID-19, but plague is one of the problems facing Lorenzo De Medici’s Renaissance fiefdom. Populist civic unrest, fanned by repressive cleric Girolamo Savonarola (Christopher Meister), makes the libertine lifestyle of men like Botticelli (Alex Benito Rodriguez) dangerous. Botticelli’s affairs with other men, including his new assistant, Leonardo da Vinci (John Payne), are only one potentially fatal complication in his life; he’s also having an affair with Clarice Orsini (Neala Barron), the wife of Lorenzo (Andrew Cutler). She’s the model for what will be his most famous painting, The Birth of Venus (or what puckish sorts have long called “Venus on the Half-Shell”).

Botticelli in the Fire
Through 11/5: Thu-Sat 8 PM, Sun 3 PM; also industry nights Mon 10/10 and 10/24 8 PM, Den Theatre, 1331 N. Milwaukee, firstfloortheater.com, $25-$35 ($20 students/industry)

Tannahill’s play uses the anachronistic aesthetic of history-as-pop-culture previously seen in pieces like David Adjmi’s 2012 play, Marie Antoinette, and more recently, James Ijames’s The Most Spectacularly Lamentable Trial of Miz Martha Washington. He’s not bothered with fealty to the historical record in pursuit of making his contemporary points about the ways that the forces of “morality” (as embodied in patriarchy and heteronormativity) continue to wreak havoc with those who refuse to bow to either political or religious power structures. For example, though da Vinci and Botticelli knew each other, the former was never an apprentice to the latter, as Tannahill has it. The actual model for The Birth of Venus was Simonetta Cattaneo Vespucci, a noblewoman who was allegedly an object of affection for Lorenzo Medici’s brother, Giuliano.

So if you’re looking for an art history lesson, you’ll not find one in Bo Frazier’s high-octane staging for First Floor Theater. (As we’re told near the beginning, “This isn’t a play. It’s an extravaganza!”) What you will find is a show that, despite some longueurs here and there, is insistently flashy, ribald, passionate, and as unapologetic in its stances as its protagonist.

Until, that is, he decides to renounce his art in order to save someone he loves. This too is playing fast and loose with the historical record, but by the time the decision was made, I found myself buying into it for the most part, thanks to the way that Rodriguez slowly reveals the frightened and guilt-ridden man behind the swaggering devil-may-care legend.

One of the strongest aspects of Tannahill’s script is how it dissects the false liberality of men like Lorenzo, who decries the unwashed mobs (and Meister’s toxic rabble-rousing priest) for their ignorance and praises himself for being an instrument of enlightenment. But that all changes on a dime as soon as his “property rights” to his wife are violated. Cutler and Barron excel at playing the cat-and-mouse game of high-society spouses who are far less sure of each other and themselves than they let on. (An early scene at a ball has a whiff of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death,” as we see the Medicis and their society playthings flirt and banter, even as we hear of bodies piling up in the streets outside.) Lauren Nichols’s set uses a large gilt frame around the playing area, which is a minimalist bright-white world reminiscent of a fashion catwalk. (Perfect for showing off Hilary Rubio’s glam-trash costumes.) Nearly everyone (except Leonardo) is putting on a show for each other—until reality kicks down the door.

It’s a messy show in some ways, but these are especially messy times (meaning both the era of the Medicis and our own fraught reality). It’s fitting that the real hero ends up being Payne’s Leonardo. In interludes reminiscent of Mary Zimmerman’s The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci, the ensemble occasionally sings a choral arrangement (musical direction by Andres Fonseca) of da Vinci’s notes on Vitruvian Man, his famous synthesis of art and science. The way forward requires finding the balance between passion and politics, personal freedom and civic responsibility. Botticelli in the Fire offers an extravagant and at times unnerving portrait of what happens when that balance is destroyed by malevolent opportunists.