nytheatre.com review by Sarah Wolfman Robichaud
August 15, 2004
“If art is not about honesty, what should it be about?” This question is debated early on in Burning Botticelli by actor Joe Hickey in his moving, frighteningly realistic, portrayal of the 15th century Florentine preacher, Fra Savonarola, thus serving the audience one of the play’s main themes. This is a daring question for any self-proclaimed artist (or actor or writer) to attempt to answer. Playwright Dennis Schebetta explores here the age-old frustration of every artist who searches for a “voice” to inspire them. This piece, directed by Scott Embler, is gorgeous, with its slide projections on white canvasses, clothes, and faces—but it may be difficult going for the viewer without at least one Intro to Art Historical Analysis class under their belt.
The play opens with a flourish of characters, each telling his or her own story. A Native American girl camps out in the desert hoping for a vision from the Spider Woman. Botticelli runs to the aid of Savonarola, who shunned Botticelli’s painting for displaying the work of the devil, and the two men reconcile before the preacher is burned at the stake the following day. A contemporary artist, who hears voices that tell him what to create, is stalked by a cult follower as he sits before Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus in Florence. All of these images flash in front of the audience’s eyes before the play unfolds to reveal some very lovely moments about each of these artists’ struggles to fit into their societal standards.
What follows weaves together Native American myths and contemporary art critiques, performed by a talented ensemble cast ranging from parrot impressionists to a young omniscient boy. This play just may not be for everyone: do not see Burning Botticelli to be “entertained” for two hours—rather, follow the advice of G. R. Johnson’s heart-wrenching, complex, and willingly-tortured character, Monk. “The viewer discovers all,” he tells us; see this to discover what you can, because “the world has lost a sense of mysticism.” How selfless and kind of Schebetta to give back to us some of that lost magic.