Jordan Tannahill’s audacious pair of one-act plays brings Canadian Stage's season to a blazing conclusion.
Brad Fraser was spotted last week at the opening night of Jordan Tannahill’s new plays, Botticelli in the Fire and Sunday in Sodom, at Canadian Stage. Seeing him couldn’t help but invite comparisons. After all, like Tannahill, Fraser was once the young gay playwright everyone was talking about, the outspoken rebel who wanted to shake up Canadian theatre. (See Tannahill’s 2015 book Theatre of the Unimpressed for details.)
Like Fraser’s, Tannahill’s work is witty, sexy, and audacious, with a strong emotional core. But, where Fraser’s early hits—Unidentified Human Remains, Poor Super Man—were dark, angry creations birthed during the AIDS era, Tannahill’s millennial pieces have more of a melancholic, whimsical tone. And where Fraser drew his inspiration from comic books and slasher flicks, Tannahill favours slightly older sources.
Botticelli in the Fire and Sunday in Sodom are a pair of one acts, the first a wild riff on the life of the great Italian Renaissance painter, the second a brilliant retelling of the biblical Sodom and Gomorrah story. Both plays are ultimately about huge sacrifices made for love.
Tannahill’s Botticelli tale is loosely based on some known facts about the artist’s life—and even “loosely” may be too firm an adverb. This Sandro Botticelli (played like a bitchy Bacchus by Salvatore Antonio) is a bisexual hedonist with an Olympian appetite for wine, women, and boys. When he isn’t pleasuring his latest nude model, the voluptuous Clarice (Nicola Correia-Damude), he’s having his way with his apprentice, the pretty and unnervingly talented Leonardo (Stephen Jackman-Torkoff), his “catamite puppy dog.”
Things are about to get rough for Sandro, however: Savonarola (Alon Nashman), the extremist friar, is gaining power in Florence with his anti-materialist, anti-sex, anti-gay pronouncements. And the painter is running a big risk shagging Clarice, who happens to be the wife of his patron, Lorenzo the Magnificent (Christopher Morris), the Medici magnate and de facto ruler of the city-state.
Tannahill cheerfully muddles past and present, fact and fiction, with the excuse that a phantom Botticelli is narrating his own story from a 500-year vantage point and will tell it any damn way he pleases. So the Medici carry smartphones as well as daggers; Sandro and Lorenzo play a friendly game of squash; and Savonarola, the self-styled people’s prophet, spouts his message in a televised interview, using rhetoric that could easily fit into the campaign speeches of Trump and Sanders.
The real Botticelli became a follower of Savonarola and may have sacrificed some of his own work on the infamous “Bonfire of the Vanities” that the friar organized—a mass burning of objects deemed sinful. Tannahill latched onto this and tried to imagine why the artist, whose sublime pagan works (The Birth of Venus, Primavera) seemingly celebrate corporeal beauty, would have supported the same kind of severe, hate-fuelled religious zealotry practised today by the likes of Islamic State and the Taliban.
The result is a bold, unruly play, at times shrewdly satirical, at others recalling Derek Jarman’s steamy 1986 film Caravaggio. But the relationship between Sandro and Leonardo is too hastily sketched, making Sandro’s great act of love less moving than it should be—and then only in retrospect, when you consider he’s preserving for us the future painter of the Mona Lisa.
The real emotional power comes in the second one-act, Sunday in Sodom. Here, the contemporary parallel is even more explicit. Tannahill’s retelling locates Sodom in the current war-torn Middle East, where the city’s fateful lack of hospitality has nothing to do with its inhabitants’ sexual proclivities and everything to do with their hatred of western “liberators.”
Things are tense after a marketplace bombing in neighbouring Gomorrah, when the aging Lot (Nashman) welcomes a pair of less-than-angelic U.S. soldiers—one of them injured—into his house. It turns out to be a foolhardy gesture, enraging his fellow citizens, igniting mob violence, and eventually bringing an airstrike down upon the city.
Once again, Tannahill posits an answer to a timeless conundrum: why did Lot’s wife disobey divine orders and look back at the destruction of Sodom? Well, she’ll tell you. Her name is Edith (a delightfully acerbic Valerie Buhagiar) and she narrates this account from an angry housewife’s perspective, castigating her couch-potato husband and taking the side of the children—including her husband’s young cousin, Isaac (Jackman-Torkoff), who has just escaped near-sacrifice at the hands of his cult-leader father, Abraham.
Ripping into this controversial religious text, Tannahill gives the boot to the patriarchal viewpoint and replaces it with a matriarch’s “alternate version.” The satire is biting, but the playwright’s portrayal of a struggling family and the terrifying events outside their door feels disturbingly real. By the end, the play has inverted the Abraham-Isaac scenario, showing how a mother’s love will lead her to defy even God. Tannahill wrote Sunday in Sodom as a gift to his own ailing mom and, strangely enough, it may be the perfect play for this Mother’s Day.
The paired productions, directed by Matjash Mrozewski (Botticelli) and Estelle Shook (Sodom) with a shared cast and creative team, are a study in contrasts: Mrozewski paints in vibrant colours, with splashes of sex, operatic interludes, and men swaggering about in codpieces (James Lavoie designed the amusing costumes as well as the blank-canvas set). Shook could be the Savonarola of directors, preferring an austere approach that cloaks the Berkeley Street Theatre’s downstairs stage in shadows (the painterly lighting is by Steve Lucas).
Antonio and Buhagiar are both eminently sympathetic in their leading roles and the ensemble as a whole performs with zest. Morris is particularly memorable as a chummy but dangerous Lorenzo de’ Medici, while the likable Nashman is cleverly cast as the two unlikable “holy” men: the calmly fanatical Savonarola and the obsequious Lot.
The one thing Tannahill doesn’t share with Fraser is a tumultuous producing history. He seems to have moved quite easily from presenting work at Videofag, his soon-to-be-shuttered indie venue in Kensington Market, to being embraced as a resident playwright at Canadian Stage—where he is not only closing out this season, but opening the next one with a revival of Concord Floral, his Boccaccio-inspired teen drama. Let’s hope it’s the beginning of a long artistic relationship; with Botticelli and Sodom, it’s already off to a great start.
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