There might be a great play to be found within Jordan Tannahill's ambitious BOTTICELLI IN THE FIRE, and First Floor Theater delivers this Chicago premiere with an epic design and a fine cast. Director Bo Frazier's production gives us everything you want in a storefront production - flashy costumes, great choral singing, overpowering sound, compelling choreography and fights, brave actors, and high energy. Frazier's team races through the first act scenes and transitions with skill and style.
Queering the basic story of the great artist while he creates his masterpiece, The Birth of Venus, Tannahill is not shy in his attempt to shock. As in Brecht's Threepenny Opera, Tannahill's political message is often interrupted by dance, music, and schtick, and the opening night audience ate it up. With that being said, the relationships felt a bit underdeveloped, and despite all the bells and whistles, the second act is woefully slow.
Set designer Lauren Nichols makes the first statement of the evening with a wonderfully detailed proscenium with a red curtain that parts to reveal a white cube that is equally effective as an art studio and racquetball court. Willow James' pulsing sound design sets the mood, so when Alex Benito Rodriguez appears as a wonderfully needy and sleazy artist who demands our attention, we understand that we will be entertained and lectured.
The battling Medicis - played with humor and power by Nela Barron and Andrew Cutler - have provided a commission for Boticelli to work, aided by his assistant Leonardo (John Payne). With Barron as his muse and Payne as his love, Boticello reaches the peak of his sexual and artistic work. Barron has a masterful monologue that is hilarious and searing. It was so good it made the other bits - the cell phone jokes, contemporary references, the Bonfire of the Vanities joke - seem tired.
Running counterpoint to the Medici story is the rise of Savonarola (Christopher Meister), who seems to be Alex Jones in religious robes, spewing hate through his portable mic and speaker. Anyone with an ear for today's public discourse will not be surprised by what he says.
After the pageantry subsides and the flames are extinguished, we are finally left with Botticelli and Leo and a jar of peanut butter in final tableaux that is sexy, heartfelt, and welcome.
All of the members of the production team did excellent work. Hilary Rubio (Costume Designer), Benjamin Carne (Lighting Designer), Caitlin McCarthy* (Props Designer), Micah Figueroa* (Intimacy and Fight Coordinator), and Andres Fonesca (Musical Director) deserve applause. Special praise should be given to those who created the painting, which appears - and is effectively destroyed - during the show.
Location: The Den’s Janet Bookspan Theatre,1331 N. Milwaukee Ave. in Chicago
Regular Run: Friday, September 30 – Saturday, November 5, 2022
Curtain Times: Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm; Sundays at 3 pm.
Industry Nights: Monday, October 10 at 8 pm and Monday, October 24 at 8 pm
Tickets: $25 – $35. Students/industry $20. Tickets at currently available at firstfloortheater.com.
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