Last year around this time, the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills, CA, hosted the inventive, highly entertaining, and inspired-by-true-events Kneehigh production of “946: The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips” that focused on WWII’s Normandy landings. Its director, Emma Rice, is back again, in conjunction with her former husband and writer, Daniel Jamieson, along with co-producing partner, the Bristol Old Vic, to present the U.S. premiere of “The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk.” It’s an intimate play with music that originally debuted twenty-six years ago, in 1992, when it was performed by Rice and Jamieson, who portrayed Marc and Bella Chagall (the show was called “Birthday” then). “The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk” has now returned to a different world, yet remains as moving as ever, where it can now be experienced through March 11th.
Though it resembles nothing like the splendor it did before because of the ravages of a persecutive history, Vitebsk can be found in present-day Belarus (of the then-Russian Empire) where Marc Chagall grew up during the late 1800s/early 1900s. As a Russian Jew, and oldest of nine children, Chagall, who would, of course, earn an illustrious legacy for himself as one of the foremost and most versatile artists of his time or any other, was just as inspired by the art of painting as he was by his first wife, Bella Rosenfeld, an aspiring writer born to jewelers, whom he met in breathtaking fashion in 1909. Being of the same national and ethnic origins that her husband was from, Bella was the subject of several of her soulmate’s paintings, like “Bella in Green,” “Bella with White Collar,” “Over the Town,” and “Birthday,” which commemorated the fateful day when Bella surprised Marc, who had never celebrated his birthday before, with his very first.
Marc and Bella share their adoration and recall their mutual love for their hometown, Vitebsk, on a stage within a stage that captures the everlasting trance of their union as it should for a couple that had a bond mostly inured to the harsh vagaries of reality. This is melodically highlighted via not only an array of Russian, French, and Yiddish folk songs, but the recurring theme of Ella Fitzgerald and the Ink Spots’ “I’m Making Believe” – a timeless song seemingly custom-made for a timeless love story. Marc Antolin’s Marc Chagall and Daisy Maywood’s Bella evocatively vocalize the music, alongside the multi-instrumental tandem of Ian Ross (also the composer/music director) and James Gow. These two men impressively accompany the leads’ voices with an accordion, cello, mandolin, piano, and trumpet, while stepping in and out of the forefront to play bit characters, or join the proceedings for four-part harmonies.
Scenic and Costume designer, Sophia Clist, uses an off-kilter trapezoidal base affixed to bamboo-like sticks along the perimeter that overlap up top, as well as wooden chairs and simple props, to delineate the starring lovers’ 35 years together. Marc and Bella are clad in expressive black and white, and accentuated by Lighting Designer Malcom Rippeth’s glorious blue, purple, red, and orange hues that illuminate much of the whimsy that characterized them — who, despite having to face the anti-Semitism and terrors of World War I, the Russian Revolution, and World War II, before finally escaping to New York — remained optimistic because they had each other and their daughter Ida.
Yet, as Marc Antolin and Daisy Maywood craftily demonstrate, it wasn’t necessarily the harrowing external events around them that was the primary crucible to be surmounted, but rather Marc’s oftentimes unreasonable obsession with his work. Having to move around from St. Petersburg, to Moscow, or even France for survival, wasn’t always as hurtful as Marc’s unwitting insensitivity to Bella and her personal experience.
Maywood is heartbreaking as Bella, as she poetically and lithely expresses her joie de vivre, and passion for her own literary causes, as voluntarily sacrificed as they were at the outset, into the arms of Antolin’s Chagall, as they together manifest the balletic and tender choreography by Rice and Etta Murfitt. As Bella, Maywood gracefully emotes her unflagging loyalty to her character’s husband, though we also feel, through her dispirited eyes, how she defers her own ambitions, or loses track of them, because Marc Chagall is unfairly greedy about his.
However, we forgive Marc, who, like a fearless though self-unaware child, is blinded by the pursuit of his own artistic fervency. The reason being is that he never meant to hurt his wife, but rather the opposite, as he rhetorically asks, “Does she know everything I’ve ever made is for her?” Marc is paradoxically playful and serious, kissing and embracing Bella with every fiber of his being one moment, and then, with a similar fluid-like motion, is off to his work as the clock inexorably ticks, confirming that what attracted Bella to him and what frustrates her are one and the same. Antolin is excellent at conveying this impassioned stubbornness about Chagall, who is compelled to put his perception of the world — inclusive of green cows, fish, and cockerels – on canvasses. As we see Antolin’s Chagall do mid-air splits, innocently caress Bella’s shoulders with his paint brushes, charmingly contort his body, or waggishly dance with bottles on his head next to Bella, we accept him for who he is, and was, faults and all.
Overall, “The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk” is a very personal play/musical without any regrets. It flows between the real and the abstract, as fluid as an eternal dream, not unlike Chagall’s surrealistic paintings. In addition, the 90-minute show beautifully and intimately evinces the unmistakable and inextricable link between art and romance as experienced through the adoring and enduring depictions of Marc and Bella Chagall, whose hearts never leave Vitebsk. But, it is not without the obstacles during a war-stricken and discriminatory epoch, including Chagall’s unwavering fixation with his own art, which threatened, though failed, to keep them apart and out of each other’s loving arms until Bella’s abrupt passing due to a strep throat infection in 1944. Her literary legacy saw a resurgence posthumously, however, with translations provided by her daughter Ida, and drawings by Marc, who helped their fallen loved one rise from the tragedy of having died “so hidden.”
Suffice it to say, Kneehigh and Bristol Old Vic’s production is as imaginative and creative as the notable and heroic artists it deftly represents.
For more information about “The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk” at The Wallis, please visit thewallis.org