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The only time I ever saw Prince perform live was on the 2004 Musicology Tour. It was an odd era for the Artist Only Just Recently Once Again Known as Prince: He’d resumed playing the hits from his late-’70s-through-early-’90s heyday after largely abjuring them for a decade, but the religious awakening he’d experienced in the years since he’d made his most beloved music remained. His compromise was to censor his own songs as he played them, replacing the most libidinous words with less scandalous synonyms or else just letting the audience fill in the filthy phrases he no longer cared to sing.
I thought about that concert after and even during Botticelli in the Fire, Woolly Mammoth’s U.S. premiere of Canadian playwright/novelist/filmmaker/choreographer Jordan Tannahill’s uproarious and chilling ahistorical fantasy—and not just because Jon Hudson Odom’s appearance and demeanor in the role of the horndog genius Sandro Botticelli so strongly recall Prince. Botticelli, too, became a convert and burned many of his secular paintings. Prince was remarkably successful at keeping his music off the internet in his later years, but at least he couldn’t destroy the master tapes for Dirty Mind.
That tension between the flesh and the spirit, the orgasmic and the ecclesiastic, that animated Prince’s (and so many others’) best work, and the tension between the 1980s of Prince and Madonna and the 1980s of Ronald Reagan and Jerry Falwell, drip from Botticelli’s every exposed pore, of which there are many. It would be gross, indecent hyperbole to suggest this production spent as much on merkins as the plush Camelot being performed at Sidney Harman Hall a couple of blocks north did on costumes. Let it suffice to say the design team has done an admirable job of making Alyssa Wilmoth Keegan, who has an athletic frame and short hair, look like the model for “The Birth of Venus.” (The clamshell Venus stands on in the painting gives set designer Misha Kachman his sole opportunity to bring that familiar Woolly bling, turning the shell into a lightbulb-ringed bandstand that descends from the ceiling.)
And the show itself is a total Renaissance panty-dropper, a queer-as-fuck mashup of Cabaret and Red and La Cage aux Folles that’s kinda-sorta set in the 1480s but is clearly about our unfathomable present. (Botticelli and his gifted young assistant/lover, some kid named Leonardo from the Florentine suburb of Vinci, learn that “sodomites” are being roasted alive in the piazza via text message.) Cody Nickell is the tatted-up Lorenzo Di Medici, ruthless ruler of Florence and Botticelli’s patron, who commissions the artist to make a portrait of his spouse, Clarice Orsini (Wilmoth Keegan). With Orsini’s enthusiastic consent, Botticelli immediately exceeds his mandate, placing both their lives at risk. Meanwhile, the bubonic plague is decimating Florence, which the opportunistic friar Girolamo Savanarola (Craig Wallace) claims represents divine judgment for the city’s secular and hedonistic pursuits. When his acolytes take to burning buggerers, he claims they’re acting without his approval, while arguing, in so many words, that there are some very fine people on both sides.
It’s a rich drama that can give us two despicable villains who are enemies of one another and who each threaten our protagonist in discrete ways. Having Nickell and Wallace present as the era’s dominant businessman/politician and cleric, respectively, raises provocative questions about whether commerce or religion is the more destructive force. In one scene, Nickell is recast as an airhead chat-show host interviewing Savanarola. Director Marti Lyons (late of Studio’s wildly successful The Wolves) stops short of having Nickell rub Wallace’s head like Jimmy Fallon.
Forget trying to reconcile the timeline: The conflagration of the title is the same 1497 blaze Tom Wolfe borrowed for the name of his landmark 1987 novel The Bonfire of the Vanities, sending up the greed and false piety of the Reagan years. (Wallace’s delight upon stumbling over the phrase is the show’s only clunker of a joke.) Botticelli was persuaded to destroy many of his secular paintings as “vanities,” and by some accounts, to retire from painting, at least for a while. What Tannahill has dreamt up is an imaginative explanation of how Venus, his masterpiece, was spared the flames.
The show opens exactly like Woolly’s superb productions of An Octoroon did, with Odom breaking the fourth fall to address us directly: “This isn’t gonna be another tortured fag-artist sob story,” he declares. “Well, maybe a little.” In Tannahill’s conception, Botticelli’s sexual and creative prowess are more or less inseparable. “He came out of the womb sucking his own cock,” claims no less an authority than his mother (Dawn Ursula). The seven-member company is so overripe with talent that Ursula, a much-honored Woolly powerhouse, appears in just a handful of scenes. Her most haunting moment comes when she is present merely as a sort of disembodied narrator, reciting the relative distances between various parts of the human body while offstage, victims of the religious purges burn.
The actors less familiar to Woolly regulars than those already named are no less sublime: Earl T. Kim provides much of the evening’s flamboyant comedy as Poggio du Chullu, a compatriot of Botticelli’s who doesn’t have the artist’s connections to keep him safe. And as Da Vinci, who has not yet fully unlocked his own genius, Woolly first-timer James Crichton evinces a quiet command that contrasts nicely with the more outsized performances coming from, well, everyone. Botticelli spots the kid’s talent before anyone else, marveling as his ability to paint lifelike feet. In an evening that paints in broad strokes, it’s those details that really hit you.
To June 24 at 641 D St. NW. $20–$79. (202) 393-3939. woollymammoth.net.