by Lynn on April 30, 2016

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Berkeley Street Theatre Downstairs, Toronto, Ont.

Written by Jordan Tannahill
Directed by Matjash Mrozewski (Botticelli in Fire)
Estelle Shook (Sunday in Sodom)
Set and Costumes by James Lavoie
Lighting by Steve Lucas
Composition/Sound by Cameron Davis
Cast: Salvatore Antonio
Valerie Buhagiar
Nicola Correia-Damude
Stephen Jackman-Torkoff
Christopher Morris
Alon Nashman

Playwright Jordan Tannahill has taken two events, one historical, one biblical, and given them a contemporary sensibility, making them timely and relevant.

The Stories. Botticelli in the Fire is about Sandro Botticelli, the Renaissance painter, hedonist and lover in 1497, during the Bonfire of the Vanities “a religious inferno of art, books and matters of sin.’ Being gay was a sin at the time, certainly under the reign of terror of Friar Savanarola. He felt that all irreligious art, books and matters of sin (sodomy) should be burned.

Botticelli has been commissioned by Lorenzo de Medici to paint a portrait of his wife Clarice de Medici. The resulting work turns out to be ‘The Birth of Venus’ with Clarice Medici as his nude model. Botticelli is also having an affair with Clarice and if Lorenzo finds out there will be serious trouble. Botticelli is also in love/lust with his assistant, Leonardo. That last could get them both burned as ‘sodomites.’ As matters heat up both in his art and in his private life, Botticelli must make a decision: does he save his lover? his art? himself.?

Sunday in Sodom. With this play Tannahill re-writes the story of Lot and his nameless wife. The bible story has Lot being told by heavenly angels that God will destroy Sodom and that he and his wife must leave immediately. They also say that under no circumstances can she turn around and look at the destruction.

In Tannahill’s play Lot’s wife is named Edith. She has grit and common sense. She needs it because the household is getting full. Already there is Edith and Lot’s daughter Sarah and her two kids. Her nephew Isaac calls, frantic that his father Abraham wanted to kill him because God was testing his devotion. It got as far as Abraham putting Isaac on a rock ready to do the deed when Abraham was stopped. Isaac sought protection with his Aunt Edith.

Lot is a TV watching nebbish. He’s not happy that his nephew is there, but has no qualms in inviting two American soldiers into his house, one is wounded badly. Lot refers to the Americans as ‘angels.’ Lot and family don’t understand the language of the soldiers. The neighbours are not happy that these soldiers are next door. Matters become dangerous—this is a war-torn area. Lot, Edith and the family are told by the soldiers to leave their house and land immediately because fighter jets are coming to destroy the village. And of course Edith is told not to look back by one of the soldiers but not why. We know what happens but not why.

The Productions. Both productions are produced and directed with style. Designer James Lavoie is a star in his own right for his set and costumes. The set for both plays is white with various doors. His costumes for Botticelli in Fire are a combination modern and Renaissance with codpieces on all the men’s pants, even on gold shorts. The costumes are rich, stylish and arresting. When Lorenzo de Medici comes to see Botticelli’s painting he wears a slim red suit that says everything about power and confidence. Clarice de Medici wears a sumptuous gold and black gown that says everything about that opulent life.

Matjash Mrozewski directs Botticelli in the Fire with flair. There is a subtle fusion of music and sound that plays under the dialogue that serves the piece and doesn’t detract.

As Botticelli, Salvatore Antonio has a nice balance of hedonism and sensitivity. Part of the play is performed as if he is doing stand-up comedy. A microphone appears from out of various folds in his clothing as he riffs on what is happening in his life, commenting. And while this Botticelli loves life and sex in Antonio’s performance we also sense Botticelli’s fears about getting caught either by Lorenzo or by the fierce Friar Savanarola. At times he’s breathless with fear.

Christopher Morris is an engaging, dangerous Lorenzo de Medici. He knows the value and power of threatening people quietly. He likes getting weak pray in his sights and toying with them, as he does Botticelli.

As Clarice de Medici, Nicola Correia-Damude is sensual, arrogant, and knows how to live dangerously, which seems a turn-on for her. Having an affair with Botticelli while married to one of the most ruthless men in Italy suggests Clarice is one gutsy (reckless?) woman.

In Sunday in Sodom director Estelle Shook has a vivid sense of image and knows how to use sound and music to great effect. A subtle sound of tumbling (Samuel Sholdice) underscores the dialogue and gets louder and louder towards the end of the play. You grip the arms of the seat with tight fingers.

James Lavoie’s costume for Edith is inspired. We all know what happens to Lot’s wife so Lavoie and Shook have anticipated it before the end. Edith stands stalk still in her grey, textured gown that looks like an upside down cone. She barely moves. Her arms are bent in mid air. Only her face moves when she talks. She is already salt.

As Edith, Valerie Buhagiar is commanding as she handles the fluid, repetitive poetry in Sunday in Sodom. Buhagiar paces the poetry until it builds and builds in frantic intensity. And why she turns around is just inspired.

As Lot, Alon Nashman is a fidgety, impatient man who listens to the news without it sinking in as to how they all are involved. Nicola Correia-Damude is a frazzled Sahrah, trying to take care of her two children and her parents as well. Stephen Jackman-Torkoff as Isaac is anxious and fearful as any young person would be when his father wanted to kill him to show God he was obedient. That certainly would give anybody pause.

Comment. Jordan Tannahill has written two bracing, thoughtful plays that explore intriguing questions: What would you give up to save your life? When do you disobey an order? While we’re at it, what is this great preoccupation of God with unconditional devotion: To Abraham: “Kill your son to prove your devotion to me: to Lot’s wife, “Don’t turn around when you leave Sodom (and I’m not telling you why)”. He uses history (for Botticelli in the Fire) and tweaks a spelling here, or a relationship there, or who really was the model for “The Birth of Venus.”

For Sunday in Sodom he gives Lot’s wife a name and makes her the centre of the story and Lot just a footnote. That’s one of Tannahill’s many attributes as a playwright. He ‘plays’ with facts to create a work that focuses on matters he finds important. He says that he is looking at the official record of two events “via decidedly queer and feminist lenses.” Actually I think his gaze is more encompassing than that.

Botticelli in the Fire is an erotic look at art, love and hedonism. Tannahill beautifully illuminates the terror of power and how it’s most devastating when it’s quietly threatening. If there is a quibble, it’s that it can be tightened a bit. Too often I thought the play was ending only to have it continue on.

Sunday in Sodom is a poem that slowly builds in pace and grip until the last inevitable, unavoidable moment. Jordan Tannahill goes from strength to strength in his writing and these two plays are examples of Tannahill at the top of his game.

Canadian Stage Presents:

Opened: April 28, 2016.
Closes: May 15, 2016.
Cast: 6; 4 men, 2 women.
Running Time: 90 minutes.


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