‘Botticelli in the Fire’
Through June 24
Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company
641 D Street, NW
‘The Scottsboro Boys’
Through July 1
4200 Campbell Avenue, Arlington
Sometimes illuminations, or at least entertainment, come looking backward through a gay lens.
Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company is offering the American premiere of out playwright Jordan Tannahill’s “Botticelli in the Fire,” a boldly modern and sexy reimagining of historical gay characters in Renaissance Florence.
It opens with Sandro Botticelli (out actor Jon Hudson Odom) staggering boozily through the audience to the stage. The great Renaissance painter is ready to dish, and girl, as Tannahill would have him say, does he have a story to tell. Looking back from the beyond, Botticelli remembers halcyon days as hot art star and darling of the Medici, the de facto rulers of glorious Renaissance Florence. But that was before Botticelli’s 1497 downfall. And, as he reminds us, everybody loves to hear about a downfall.
An enthusiastic voluptuary since birth as his plainspoken mother, Madre Maria (Dawn Ursula), explains, Botticelli believes in excess, pleasure and beauty; and while mostly interested in men, he’s willing to sleep with women too. Currently, he’s having an affair with the sexually free and beautiful Clarice Orsini (Alyssa Wilmoth Keegan), and because she’s sitting for Botticelli’s masterpiece “The Birth of Venus,” their assignations are frequent. At the same time, Botticelli is falling in love with his artistically precocious, fresh-from-the-farm assistant, Leonardo Da Vinci (James Crichton). And yet he still makes time to party hard with his outrageous gay bestie Poggio du Chullu (Earl T. Kim).
But there’s trouble in the city state. Botticelli’s patron and Clarice’s husband, the ruthless Lorenzo de’ Medici (Cody Nickell) is on to their affair. And outside the cossetted confines of Botticelli’s studio and the palace, the plague has resurfaced and the populace is panicked. Citizens are aligning with conservative friar Girolamo Savonarola (Craig Wallace) and they’re burning gay artists in the town square.
Director Marti Lyons has staged a series of beautiful tableau-like scenes, some of which could stand alone. Instances include a captive Leonardo calling to God from the bottom of a medieval septic tank: “If I am a Sodomite what are you?” And later, Botticelli lies across his plainspoken mother’s lap (à la Michelangelo’s Pietà) as she sponge-bathes him. Madre Maria advises her son to choose what he loves most, advice that ultimately leads him to burn his own paintings in a dramatic burning of art, books and finery.
It’s not a perfect piece, however. The script is uneven — campy repartee between gay characters gets tired and the actors have to work hard to land some stale jokes. Luckily, the strong cast keeps things afloat.
In the queering (or reexamining history from a queer lens) of the past, Tannahill takes liberties in creating a compelling gay love story rife with anachronisms — timely and amusing — in dialogue and sublime design. We’re reminded how the rights of artists and LGBT people are, again and again, called into question.
Across the Potomac in Arlington, Signature Theatre presents John Kander and Fred Ebb’s “The Scottsboro Boys,” a musical drawn from a grim episode in American history. Like Kander & Ebb’s musicals “Cabaret” and “Chicago,” this their final collaboration also takes on social issues with great theatricality. Here, a hideous true tale of Jim Crow injustice unfolds framed as a minstrel show.
Performed beneath a decaying proscenium arch, Signature’s production, staged by out director Joe Calarco with athletic choreography by Jared Grimes is smart and compelling theater. The Depression-era story is familiar. Nine down-and-out young African-American men and boys are riding the rails in search of work when they are falsely accused of rape by two young white women. Immediately jailed in Scottsboro, Ala.,, they are tried and condemned to death. Their fate becomes a cause with New York liberals, prompting famed Jewish defense attorney Samuel Leibowitz to take their case which leads to subsequent retrials and convictions.
Stacked with minstrel stock characters — the Interlocutor, or emcee (Christopher Bloch), who represents the voice of the Old South, and broad comics Mr. Bones (the excellent Stephen Scott Wormley) and Mr. Tambo (Chaz Alexander Coffin) — we’re offered a glimpse into American theater history. As communicated by Kander and Ebb, the experience isn’t always easy. It’s sometimes uncomfortable to reconcile cake-walking, tap dancing choreography and the score’s upbeat ragtime tunes with themes of racism, anti-Semitism, injustice and brutality.
The focus is pulled on the most defiant of the Scottsboro boys, Haywood Patterson (played gracefully by Lamont Walker II). Other cast standouts include Aramie Payton as 12-year-old Eugene, the youngest of the accused, and DeWitt Fleming, Jr., who plays one of the boys as well as star witness Ruby Bates.
Well into the second act, when the young convicts’ last glimmer of hope for vindication is sufficiently dashed, things become especially heartbreaking. And the show’s final number in which the actors playing the boys relay their character’s uniformly tragic ends proves even sadder.