Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.

Botticelli in the Fire
Kennedy Center
Review by Susan Berlin | Season Schedule

Also see Susan's review of Broadway Center Stage: How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying

James Crichton and Jon Hudson Odom
Photo by Scott Suchman
Botticelli in the Fire is the kind of play that Washington's Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company is famous for producing: aggressively theatrical and making a point about modern society by repurposing and reframing moments in history. Jordan Tannahill's play chooses and blends elements of Renaissance Italy—with varying degrees of success—to show the fault lines in contemporary society.

Tannahill's point is to tell the stories that have been eliminated from history: people know the artworks of Sandro Botticelli (Jon Hudson Odom) and Leonardo Da Vinci (James Crichton), but the truths of their lives have been ignored or suppressed. Botticelli was notorious for his affairs with both women and men, but what he comes to feel for Leonardo—in his youth, Botticelli's apprentice—is love.

As shown through the playwright's deliberately anachronistic lens, Botticelli was a rock star in Renaissance Florence, close friend of the ruler Lorenzo de' Medici (Cody Nickell) and closer friend to Lorenzo's wife Clarice Orsini (Alyssa Wilmoth Keegan), who is depicted as the model for the painter's epic Birth of Venus.

Director Marti Lyons works hard to juggle the disparate elements of the drama, which seems at times about to split into its component parts. Odom portrays Botticelli as louche, oblivious to the city's problems outside his gilded circle: income inequality, an outbreak of the plague, and the arrival of Girolamo Savonarola (Craig Wallace), a fanatical priest who couches his calls for the destruction of items he considered frivolous, immoral, or sinful (in a "bonfire of the vanities") in terms of populism. He gains power among people who think he can save the poor from the excesses of the rich—and don't care if a few "immoral" gay men also get burned.

The downside of Tannahill's approach is the winking way he points out the parallels between 1480s Florence, described as "one of the most progressive cities in the world," and contemporary society. Clarice makes her first appearance in a brocaded gown (costumes by Ivania Stack), but later she wears modern loungewear and a sun hat as she watches her husband and lover (also in modern clothes) play squash. The characters talk on smartphones, smoke cigarettes, and eat peanut butter. Since the language is contemporary and on point (Savonarola wants to "return the power to the people" and tells Lorenzo that the excesses of rhetoric are just to get attention), the rest becomes tiresome.

Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company
Botticelli in the Fire
May 28th - June 24th, 2018
By Jordan Tannahill
Sandro Botticelli: Jon Hudson Odom
Lorenzo de' Medici: Cody Nickell
Poggio di Chullu: Earl T. Kim
Girolamo Savonarola: Craig Wallace
Madre Maria: Dawn Ursula
Leonardo Da Vinci: James Crichton
Directed by Marti Lyons
641 D St. N.W., Washington, DC
Ticket Information: 202-393-3939 or