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Jordan Tannahill’s one-act Canadian Stage plays mix past and present

Stephen Jackman-Torkoff, left, and Salvatore Antonio in Botticelli in the Fire.

Cylla von Tiedemann

Botticelli in the Fire

Sunday in Sodom

Written by Jordan Tannahill

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Directed by Matjash Mrozewski and Estelle Shook

Starring Salvatore Antonio and Valerie Buhagiar

At Canadian Stage in Toronto

Three stars

Two new one-act plays by Jordan Tannahill, premiering at Canadian Stage in a single evening, play a similar game.

In both, a famous figure from history or myth has reappeared to set the story straight – and relive a loss suffered due to religious and political fanaticism.

Botticelli in the Fire concerns Sandro Botticelli, the Renaissance painter of The Birth of Venus, who is also said to have burnt many of his paintings in The Bonfire of the Vanities. Sunday in Sodom gives a voice to Lot's wife, who looked back at the destruction of her city and was turned into a pillar of salt. The two are directed by recent graduates of Canadian Stage's MFA program in direction with York University.

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Matjash Mrozewski, a well-established choreographer branching out into theatre, tackles Botticelli in the Fire – which, at first, reminded me of another show on stage in Toronto right now, The Judas Kiss, David Hare's play about Oscar Wilde. Both Hare and Tannahill's plays are about a well-connected queer artist who thinks the society he is living in is more enlightened than it is; believes he has more power than he does; and is undone by a mixture of hubris and love for a beautiful young man.

And they both begin in the same, unexpected way – with a nude woman orgasming.

In Tannahill's play, the woman is Clarice (Nicola Correia-Damude), the wife of Botticelli's patron, Lorenzo de' Medici (Christopher Morris). She is modelling Venus in Botticelli's masterpiece – and sleeping with the pansexual painter during the sessions.

Botticelli, a proto-Wildean proponent of pleasure and beauty here in Salvatore Antonio's lushly louche performance, is uncertain if by sleeping with Clarice he is betraying his patron – or if this is actually what he is being paid for.

He shows his lover and assistant Leonardo (a sweet Stephen Jackman-Torkoff) an ambiguous text he received from Lorenzo and tries to decipher its meaning. "Maybe they have an arrangement," Botticelli says, hopefully.

Yes, Botticelli has a smartphone – and a "chill-out playlist" he listens to while painting. Tannahill's play is full of amusing anachronisms and exists in the past and the present at once.

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Though this comic contemporaneity doesn't need to be explained, Botticelli explains it anyway: When you've been retelling your story from the void for five hundred years, you start to take creative liberties.

Thematically, however, it's all about highlighting why Tannahill is interested in Botticelli's story now. While the artist is trying to figure out how to please both his patron and his patron's wife without losing his life (or his "massive … talent," as others put it), he ignores the rise of a priest named Savonarola (Alon Nashman) – and the mobs who follow him and have begun to burn sodomites in the street.

You can smell the fear (and, in a way, understanding) of Trump, Ford and other populist politicians in Tannahill's writing – those who may not exactly mean the extreme things they say, but whose followers certainly do. The signature line of the play is "There's always a plague, there's always a fire, and there's always a friar who wants to throw someone in it."

Director Mrozewski elicits big, broad performances from his cast and shows a flair for the play's comic elements but doesn't really sell us on the tragic elements. The overall rhythm is stop-and-start – transitions amid semi-blackouts are sometimes stylized, sometimes clunky, sometimes both.

While ambitious and entertaining, Botticelli in the Fire feels like an unfinished masterpiece at the moment in any case – in particular, the relationship between Leonardo and Botticelli needs to be built up for the play's ending to register.

And, structurally, the play is confused. It begins with Botticelli telling us his story, but then a chorus of the other characters comes in to narrate. When Botticelli enters a scene, the fourth wall descends. It's messy, if sometimes pleasurably so.

Sunday in Sodom is a tighter, tidier, less daring piece of writing. Director Estelle Shook's production could not be bettered. Edith – Tannahill not only gives Lot's wife the voice she is denied in the Bible, but a name, too – tells us the story of her last day before being transformed into salt. Playing her in a bravura performance, Valerie Buhagiar does not move for the entire play; this void is more like Beckett's, except others appear behind her as in memory. (Correia-Damude is excellent here as Edith's daughter; Nashman enjoyably comic as Lot.)

Again, the past and the present mix. Sodom before being destroyed by fire and brimstone is modern-day Canada, an ancient Middle Eastern city, and Fallujah, Iraq, before the siege by U.S. Marines.

Sunday in Sodom, which lasts just 30 minutes, is a riddle: Why did Edith look back? Did she look back in anger? In sadness? Because she worried she left the stove on? Tannahill has a moving answer. As for why he is looking back, through his two protagonists in his double bill, it's to tell us to keep our eyes on the road ahead. Because there's always a plague, there's always a fire, and there's always a friar who wants to throw someone in it.

Botticelli in the Fire and Sunday in Sodom continue to May 15 (canadianstage.com).

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About the Author
Theatre critic

J. Kelly Nestruck is The Globe's theatre critic. More

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