Review: Bravo to "The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk"

Jill Weinlein

  • Chief Los Angeles Theatre Critic

Taking my teenage daughter to see The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk, I had no idea this beautiful production would be such a fascinating historical love story. I thought it might enlighten her about the great painter Marc Chagall, yet soon discovered it was also about his hardship and bigotry as a Jew living through both World Wars.

In the theater program, writer Daniel Jamieson and director and choreographer Emma Rice mention how they wrote this piece over 25 years ago. Emma played the original Bella (Marc Chagall’s wife) and Jamieson played Marc Chagall the painter. At this time, the play was called “Birthday,” illuminating their blooming romance in the show.

As we took our seats, two musicians (James Gow and Ian Ross) step onto the stage and begin the show playing the piano and cello.

The enchanting set by Sophia Clist has a dream like quality with thick tree branches touching to form the frame of a large chuppah. In the center of the elevated stage, on a slight angle, is one simple wood chair with a leather satchel hanging on the side. One blue angel wing is attached to a hanging clock on the corner, a silver bucket holding flowers hangs down from a rope and other sturdy ropes hang from the frame.

The charismatic actor Marc Antolin playing Marc Chagall begins singing a beautiful composition by Ross “Making Believe.”  As Daisy Maywood who plays Marc’s wife Bella joins in, one realizes this show is going to be sensational. I looked at my daughter and knew we were about to embark on a magical journey.

Antolin sits in the chair and answers a phone dangling on a long line attached to the chuppah. When asked by the caller “Why do people paint?” The story begins with “When some things are gone, you thirst for them and an agony to remember.”

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Marc shows the audience a black and white photograph of Vitebsk, Belarus and tells us the town was once filled with green and gold colors, and the air smelled of cinnamon and something baking.

Bella is dressed by scenic and costume designer Sophia Clist in black with a white Peter Pan style collar and bright magenta tights underneath her black skirt. She is dressed just like Chagall’s masterpieces Bella with White Collar painted in 1917.

Marc shares that Bella was one of the brightest students in Russia when the two met. Bella tells us her “toes were roots into the floor’ seeing a fair skin boy with black curls and eyes so blue.” Looking at Marc, creates Bella’s face to be “shiny red as radishes.” When Marc leaves Vitebsk to “find greatness” Bella patiently waits.

With a couple chairs, the set creatively becomes a train Marc rides. He shouts out the window how in Berlin he found success exhibiting his paintings and “now can go back to Russia with his head held high.”

We soon learn that World War I is to be declared, as Marc drapes a back veil over himself and becomes Bella’s crying mother. When Bella receives a letter that Marc is coming home to marry her, Bella’s mother cries louder “marrying a poor painter.”

Lighting designer Malcolm Rippeth offers a kaleidoscope of colors on the white geometric wall behind the stage. The actors lean on the chuppah frame, holding onto the dangling ropes they sway into and away from each other bathing in the light.

Next we learn the inspiration of another masterpiece “Birthday” painted in 1915. Marc was one of 7 children, and birthdays were never celebrated. Bella brings a bouquet of flowers to him to honor his birthday. They dance together onstage, and are lifted in the air, kissing affectionately, while she holds onto the floral arrangement, just as in the actual painting. The staging of Chagall holding two large paint brushes gliding over Bella is a touching scene.

Another clever set design is the pulley system to raise a cream colored cloth for the couple to stand under at their wedding.

Costumes during the wedding include headbands for the traditional Russian bottle dance, and a puppet looking chair for the chair dance with the bride and groom sitting high in the air.

It’s 1915 and “As Europe took themselves to war” these lovers took themselves on a honeymoon. There is a tender scene with Marc lying down and Bella smoothly somersaulting on top of him, before ladling milk into her new husband’s mouth. “We will remember this as our Milk Moon,” he says to Bella, and she replies, “We trip over each others words and are like a pair of Opera glasses. We see the same things and like the same things.” Chagall painted another piece called The Spoonful of Milk in 1912.

He was famous for his whimsical use of colors, painting animals and people in colors of green, purple and orange. Many of Chagall’s paintings reconcile old Jewish traditions with styles of modernist art.

During the War, Jews were accused of spying, forcing Marc and Bella to stay in Russia. When a Rabbi visits Marc with the “face of an angel,” he respectfully waits until the man “sleeps like and exhausted child,” and paints his famous The Praying Jew piece. Chagall once wrote “My hands were too soft. I had to find some special occupation, some kind of work that would not force me to turn away from the sky and the stars, that would allow me to discover the meaning of life.” We learn he does by painting and loving Bella.

Fleeing Vitebsk to St. Petersburg, the mood is not as light hearted. Marc works from “half past 7 to half past 6” as Bella waits 11 hours in a leaky roof apartment, listening to the ticking of a clock. She starts to write to pass the time until Chagall comes home, and “they invent new colors.”

Soon their daughter Ida is born, and Bella needs to move back home to be with family. We see a selfish side of the artist’s obsession to his art, leaving Bella alone to birth and raise their daughter, rather than pursue her own dream as a writer.

At first he first balks, yet later is convinced to move with her and open an art school in Vitebsk. Bella is always his inspiration to move forward.

With the Russian Revolution, they must leave Vitebsk and move to Moscow. Marc finds a job painting scenery at a Moscow Theater. Bella is energized with the creativity inside the theatre, yet Marc is frustrated and “wishes the actors could stand still so the audience would look at his scenery.” While in Moscow, he feels the need to “lay down the sack of troubles he carries,” and Bella encourages Chagall to paint as she lovingly places the two large paint brushes into his hands.

He once again becomes famous in Germany and causes a movement called Impressionism. His “fame abroad grows, yet Russia never embraced” him.

One of my favorite scenes is when they start placing pairs of shoes with Bella’s notebooks in-between, symbolizing the next stage in their life as they “like others wander for the next 20 years” while growing old.

They get caught up in the Holocaust and learn that everyone left Vitebsk. Bella offers in a beautifully descriptive monologue “What is it like, a city without people?”  Escaping the Nazis in World War II and moving to America, Bella soon becomes ill. She refuses to go to the hospital filled with nuns, and a sign saying white Christians only.

With tears in his eyes, Marc retells the story of how he met his beloved Bella and how she always brought him wildflowers, especially on his birthday. As she suffers from Streptococcal (Strep throat) and goes into a coma, she dies, because hospitals don’t have enough penicillin due to the war.

Looking at all of his wife’s notebooks, “her views were so close, yet so different.” Bella died “like all the other yiddish who died too young.” He adds his drawings to illustrate her words and in 1946 Marc Chagall published Bella Rosenfeld Chagall’s most famous book, The Burning Lights.

Composer and Musical Director Ian Ross' score is so beautiful that it brought joyful tears into my eyes. This beautifully written Knee-high and Bristol Old Vic production is one of the finest history lessons about a quintessential Jewish artist in love with his muse.