Review: Botticelli in the Fire & Sunday in Sodom (Canadian Stage)

Photo of Stephen Jackman-Torkoff and Salvatore Antonio in Botticelli in the Fire by Cylla von TiedemannCanadian Stage partners with York University’s Theatre Department for a stunning double feature in Toronto

Canadian Stage is collaborating with York University’s Theatre Department to produce a provocative and eye-opening double feature at the Berkeley Street TheatreBotticelli in the Fire and Sunday in Sodom. Namely, the directors for these two shows, Matjash Mrozewski and Estelle Shook respectively, graduated from York’s MFA Program in Theatre – Stage Direction last year.

They bring a fresh and youthful voice to these stories: a retelling of two events, one historic and one mythical, bringing a stark modern-day sensibility to these tales that renders the stories both captivating and highly relevant.

The double feature begins with Botticelli in the Fire about the famous Renaissance painter, Sandro Botticelli (played by Salvatore Antonio), as he is creating his masterpiece, The Birth of Venus. Botticelli is the purest hedonist, a lover of all things beautiful both male and female. In this regard, he has a romantic affair with his assistant Leonardo (Stephen Jackman-Torkoff) as well as frequent sexual encounters with Clarice de Medici (Nicola Correia Damude), his model and muse for Venus who is also the wife of Botticelli’s patron Lorenzo de Medici (Christopher Morris). At this time, homosexual men could be charged with sodomy and burned at the pyre, a constant fear for Leonardo and Sandro. When Lorenzo learns of Sandro’s affair with Clarice, the situation takes an ugly turn.

There are a few things that caught me off guard and pulled me out of being fully immersed in the production. Predominantly, it’s how the show is both modern and historical at the same time. Buses are referenced, cell phones and text messages are used and yet wrapped bodies dropped from the Plague are dragged across the stage by hooded figures.

Sandro begins the performance by entering through the side door — bottle of wine in one hand, microphone in the other — addressing the audience to tell his story in his play. His language is modern and vulgar, often punctuated with F-bombs and “bitch, please!” There are a few unexpected very modern interludes thrown in for context — “Venus” addresses the audience on her scallop shell in a flourish of a gay disco scene, the friar Savanarola (Alon Nashman) in a televised interview — that threw my suspension of disbelief for a loop.

But those moments aside, it is very difficult to not get wrapped in the story, in the amazing visual effects by the creative team: James Lavoie’s set, Steve Lucas’ lighting choices, and Samuel Sholdice’s sound design. The performances that are at times light, joking, and comical but grow dark, raw and incredibly intense, are beautiful to watch. Antonio as Sandro and Morris as Lorenzo did an amazing job but I was particularly moved by Jackman-Torkoff as Leonardo, his anger and anguish while being imprisoned left a notable impression and gave me chills.

Photo of Valerie Buhagiar in Sunday in Sodom by Cylla von TiedemannSunday in Sodom is an interpretation of the events leading to the destruction of the biblical cities Sodom and Gomorrah in the Book of Genesis. In the bible, she is known only as “Lot’s Wife”, in this story her name is Edith (Valerie Buhagiar) and here she tells her haunting tale that leads to her being turned into a pillar of salt by God for turning around to look back. Edith, a loving, hard working mother, sees her life change drastically when her husband Lot (Alon Nashman) offers refuge to two wounded soldiers, soldiers who had helped bomb the neighboring city of Gomorrah.

When I first read the audience advisories for this production, I noticed the warning for theatrical haze. It’s far from the first time that any production has used haze as a dramatic element but this may be the first time I’ve seen the haze being projected right into the audience as Bohagiar takes her place centre stage. I wasn’t particularly bothered by the haze but I did see a number of people in the audience move to cover their mouths and attempt to fan the haze away. If you have a particular sensitivity, this may be of concern.

Buhagiar is stationary throughout her story draped in a stunning gray statuesque gown and cloak (James Lavoie who also serves as costume designer, also stands out here). She delivers her story with strength and fervor all the while looking out into the audience, her arms slightly reached out at her sides throughout; a very difficult thing to do.

Edith’s story is of an aching mother and wife, trying to do all she can for her husband Lot, her daughter Sahrah (Nicola Correia-Damude) who is a mother herself, and the neighbor boy Isaac (Stephen Jackman-Torkoff) when tragedy strikes. Through her story, Buhagiar radiates with anger, helplessness, and sadness and once again, it is hard not to get swept into those emotions yourself. Needless to say, I was deeply moved by her performance.

The most obvious parallels here are the ties to modern homophobia in Botticelli in the Fire and life for a family in war-torn Syria in Sunday in Sodom which make both stories very relevant to the here and now. Both shows are incredible to watch, I highly suggest you take the time to do so.

Details:

  • Botticelli in the Fire & Sunday in Sodom are playing at the Berkeley Street Theatre until May 15, 2016.
  • Performances run Tuesday to Sunday at either 7 pm or 8 pm with matinees on Wednesdays and weekends at 1 pm. See website for more details.
  • Ticket prices range from $24 – $53, with special prices available for groups of 10 or more, and can be purchased online or by calling (416) 368 3110.
  • Audience Advisory: Performance contains nudity, sexual depictions, coarse language, theatrical haze, gunshot and explosion sounds

Photos of Stephen Jackman-Torkoff and Salvatore Antonio in Botticelli in the Fire and Valerie Buhagiar in Sunday in Sodom by Cylla von Tiedemann