“Botticelli in the Fire,” written by Jordan Tannahill, was performed in the Hepburn Zoo blackbox theater last weekend. The show was the senior thesis in directing for Ryan Kirby ’22 as well as the acting thesis for Madison Middleton ’22.5 and an intermediate project in costuming for Katie Concannon ’22. For this one weekend, the Hepburn Zoo blackbox theater was completely transformed, decked out with an ornate painted floor and draped columns. Colorful lights flashed as the audience settled into the house, creating a spectacle even before the play officially began.
The show begins with Sandro Botticelli (Middleton) interrupting Kirby’s pre-show speech to start telling the story of his life, centered around the painting of the wildly famous “Birth of Venus.” It introduces the well-known historical figures and artists Leonardo da Vinci (Ethan Fleming ’24), Lorenzo de’ Medici (Beck Barsanti ’23.5), Clarice Orsini (Peyton Mader ’24), Girolamo Savonarola (Francis Price ’22), along with the characters of Poggio di Chullu (Jacob Raymond ’23), Botticelli’s best friend, and Madre Maria (Catie Clark ’22.5), Botticelli’s mother.
Botticelli, painter of the Sistine Chapel (although, as he confesses to audiences, just some wall frescoes, not the ceiling), has been tapped by the Medicis to paint Lorenzo’s wife, Clarice. Botticelli himself is quite the talent and casanova and is revealed at the beginning of the show to be sleeping with his apprentice da Vinci, affectionately referred to as “Leo” throughout the play. As Botticelli begins working with Clarice on her portrait, she poses nude, which sparks an affair between the two of them. They continue with their affair until Medici discoveres the infidelity through the intimate manner in which Botticelli portrays Clarice in the painting. This causes chaos to ensue for all the characters, and Botticelli’s apprentice and true love, da Vinci, ends up being held captive by the Medici family. The only possible way for Botticelli to free da Vinci is by renouncing art and burning all of his works, which he ultimately does for love. The show so beautifully grapples with love, sex, queerness and the role that art can take in ones life.
The intimate venue of the Hepburn Zoo allowed for audience members to be up close and personal with the characters. The show had an immersive atmosphere, with much of it built around audience interaction as characters frequently broke the fourth wall. The show itself combined the past and present day through costumes that date from the Renaissance, along with heavy ’80s references including a Madonna soundtrack.
The impact that art has on the lives of all these actors is extremely present throughout the show, as a love of creating makes up the heart of the show. Theatre major and audience member August Siegel ’25 spoke about their reaction to “Botticelli in the Fire” and its impacts for theater at Middlebury in the future.
“I have no doubt that I’m not the only one who felt deeply affected by the love story they told, and I’m sure that it meant a lot for queer students to see this type of representation in such a thoughtful way,” Siegel said.
Representation in theatre is an important mechanism for paving the way for underrepresented artists to share their stories. “Botticelli in the Fire” cemented its legacy as a show to be talked about for years to come, with its unique approach to theatre and adeptness in broaching its subject matter. With a move toward a more post-pandemic time, people are eager to be entertained and experience the magic of live theater. Middleton and Kirby’s time at Middlebury has inspired other students to challenge themselves with topics very intimate to their own lives.
“‘Botticelli in the Fire’ was undoubtedly my best creation. It was an unapologetic celebration of queerness without making the political statement of ‘coming out.’ It took the gay for granted and ran with it from the start,” Kirby said. “I come from a conservative community in Texas, and I felt such intense catharsis having the chance to show the world who I am through my art in such a public way. I am grateful to have such a professional team that helped breathe life into this wonderful show. It truly felt like a thesis — challenging, but ultimately a true extension of me.”
It was an absolute pleasure and joy to be in the audience of this fully sold-out show — which in itself is quite an achievement for a student production. Middleton and Kirby were able to seamlessly contrast moments of high tension and intense emotion with those of comedy and queer joy.
“When I was looking for my thesis, I wanted to find a script that would stretch me in multiple directions. I wanted to find a character who aligned in some way with my non-binary gender identity and who had a complete arc with a huge emotional range. I also wanted to find a show that would invigorate me as a sound designer and composer. ‘Botticelli in the Fire’ was clearly that show,” Middleton said. “Working on this piece has been one of the greatest loves of my life. It has changed me. As an artist. As a person. As a community member.”
The amount of talent in the company of “Botticelli” was astounding. Each member of the cast and crew poured their blood, sweat and tears into the project, and it was evident in each performance.