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Review: Giving His All For His Art

Feb. 26, 2018 | By Bruce R. Feldman

“The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk,” The Wallis, Beverly Hills, Feb. 23-Mar. 11, 2018

"Art isn't easy."

When Steven Sondheim wrote these words for Sunday in the Park With George he was talking about the unforgiving pressures of the business of art, the agonizing process painters go through to realize their creative vision, and the personal sacrifices artists must make to cultivate an audience for their work.

Marc Antolin and Daisy Maywood as Marc and Bella Chagall

That’s also the subject matter of The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk, an engrossing chamber piece for two actors and two musicians that efficiently chronicles the impassioned, conflicted romance of painter Marc Chagall and the writer Bella Rosenfeld over a 35-year period beginning in Russia in 1909 and ending with Bella’s death in 1944.

It’s instant infatuation when the young lovers first meet. Soon the novice painter abandons Bella and their bustling hometown “with two cathedrals and 60 synagogues” in search of wider fame in Germany. That’s the first hint playwright Daniel Jamieson gives us into what is to be an unsettled lifelong relationship, buffeted over the years both by Chagall’s diffidence – art always comes first, doesn’t it? – and by the sweep of revolution, war, and anti-Semitism that consumed the first half of 20th-century Europe.

It's love at first song in "The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk"

While the upheaval of global events impacts mightily on the couple – obliging them to flee Russia for Germany, then France, and finally America – the play is more concerned with Chagall’s inner creative compulsions and how they diminished Bella. Chagall made magnificent, expressive paintings, but does that justify the detached way he treated his wife and daughter over his lifetime? We don’t get an answer to this age-old question. Neither does Jamieson pass judgment on Chagall’s selfish choices. It’s up to us to decide.

There’s yet another question on the audience’s mind, if not on the author’s. Exactly how much of an artist’s personal life do we need to know, or want to know, to enjoy and appreciate his art? Degas and Wagner were anti-Semites. The writer Ezra Pound was a fascist. Byron committed incest. Certainly bad and flawed people create great art all the time. But, is it important that we consider the artist’s political beliefs or personal shortcomings in our understanding of his work?

Chagall's "Lovers Over the Town"

I couldn’t help but reflect on this as I watched Marc Antolin and Daisy Maywood bring Marc and Bella to life on The Wallis stage. These gifted actors offer engaging and sympathetic portrayals of two quirky, determined intellects. They also sing beautifully. Two versatile on-stage musicians, James Gow and Ian Ross, accompany them and at various points take place in the action, adding texture and variety to an otherwise spare production. Gow also composed the score and songs in the style of Russian and Yiddish ballads, folksongs, Tin Pan Alley pop tunes, and liturgical compositions. To their credit, Jamieson and director Emma Rice weave all of it seamlessly into the narrative.

The title of the play refers to the many paintings Chagall made of himself and Bella embracing each other, often while hovering or soaring ethereally in a magical sky. He loved her passionately, yet, as The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk makes clear, indulged his own creative ambitions while neglecting hers.

Art isn’t easy. Neither is love.

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