There’s a trend on TikTok where users chime in with a little-known historical fact, such as that President Calvin Coolidge liked to prank his bodyguards by hiding in his office after calling for them. Jordan Tannahill’s “Botticelli in the Fire” is a lot like that trend, though the line between historical and fictional is blurred. Was “The Birth of Venus” artist Sandro Botticelli queer? Let’s be honest, a lot of historical figures were and we just don’t have the documents to prove it. But regardless, this play is super-duper-ultra-queer. And I’m here for it.
Witness Botticelli (Alex Benito Rodriguez) and apprentice Leonardo da Vinci (John Payne) create the masterpiece of “Venus” for the Medici family. As the artists create their work, plague ravages Florence and a dangerous religious and homophobic moment follows. At the helm of the literal homophobic blaze is fellow historical figure Girolamo Savonarola (Christopher Meister), the friar known for his “Bonfire of the Vanities,” who, ironically, was eventually hanged and burned, too. Besides his role as an artiste, this rendition of Botticelli is also a widely known queer Florentine. Needless to say, there is a plethora of incredible queer moments in this show. Saying more would ruin the unmitigated experience of seeing it.
Bo Frazier’s direction of “Botticelli” gives equal parts life, love and sentiment. While Tannahill’s text lends itself largely to a lighthearted nature, darker moments are handled with care by Frazier and their incredible cast. Rodriguez’s ferocious, hilarious and remarkable interpretation of Botticelli is a breath of fresh air. Just because we hold Renaissance artists in high esteem doesn’t mean they weren’t egotistic, afraid or any other iteration of the human experience. Payne’s nuanced da Vinci is just as inspired, though with a gentler hand to show da Vinci’s youth against Botticelli’s life experience.
Lauren M. Nichols’ scenic design is also a star. Capturing this cast within a literal golden frame that makes way for a stark white room is like watching a portrait come to life. Simultaneously Nichols’ design speaks to our human instinct to look beyond an artwork into how it was created which is often not as lovely to look at. Plus the collaboration with props designer Caitlin McCarthy to make so many elements of the scenery usable by the actors was a particularly fun addition. It’s exciting when stage pieces are not all that they seem—keep an eye on the curtains.
To be honest, as a queer person, sometimes queered art can feel forced. So often the stories can’t toe the line between queer-baiting, trauma porn and camp to make a show feel like anything more than slight modulation of what really happened. But “Botticelli in the Fire” does the miraculous. It makes us feel the wide swath of the human experience while telling a story of folks being true to themselves. And that? That’s the most beautiful artwork of all.
“Botticelli in the Fire,” First Floor Theater at The Den, 1331 North Milwaukee, firstfloortheater.com, through November 5. $18-$36.