Passion and Hardship Follow Artist and his Lifelong Muse in ‘Flying Lovers of Vitebsk’
“In our life there is a single color, as on an artist’s palette, which provides the meaning of life and art. It is the color of love.” – Marc Chagall
By SHARON EBERSON
Quantum Theatre’s timing is especially urgent in unfurling its 100th production, The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk (The Chagall Musical). The real-life story spans the first half of the 20th century, three countries, the world at war and two people who were head over heels for each other – the artist Marc Chagall and his wife, Bella Rosenfeld.
The Chagall we know best is through his works of art that radiate a dreamlike, timeless quality, which the Museum of Modern Art describes as his “distinct vocabulary of abstraction, characterized by fantastic colors and folkloric imagery.”
After meeting Bella, his future wife and lifelong muse, love became the key word in the artist’s vocabulary.
The couple’s boundless passion, spanning the Russian Revolution and two World Wars, is given life in a work that also delves into their personal hardships and their Jewish faith. For this production, the company returns to Rodef Shalom Congregation, the venue for Quantum’s immersive Tamara in 2014.
The “flying lovers” are portrayed by two local actors: Dan Mayhak, a frequent Front Porch Theatricals performer who recently starred in Merrily We Roll Along, as Marc, alongside film, television and stage actress Zanny Laird (Quantum’s The Cherry Orchard) as Bella.
Daniel Jamieson, the play’s co-writer with Ian Ross, described the Chagalls’ inspirational relationship in a Guardian essay, noting that images of Bella were seen on her husband’s canvases throughout his life.
“Famously,” Jamieson wrote, “he often depicted himself and Bella flying together, as if their shared joy had such physical force, it countermanded the law of gravity itself.”
Marc Chagall worked in a host of mediums and authored nonfiction books and articles in his 97 years, and it is his recollections that bookend The Flying Lovers. The two-hander tells the love story with a Klezmer-infused score and expressionist movement, directed and choreographed by Gustavo Zajac (associate/assistant choreographer for Broadway revivals of Fiddler on the Roof with Alfred Molina and the Tony-winning Nine). Music director Douglas Levine leads a live band including Cara Garofalo and Lenny Young.
As their story unfolds, the Chagalls face personal hardships amid a world in constant conflict. The musical play was an award winner at the 2017 Edinburgh Fringe Festival, earning a video capture that won raves as a pandemic release. The New York Times called that streamed UK co-production “enchanting” and a “triumph.”
On a day off from rehearsing their physically and vocally demanding roles, Mayhak and Laird talked about immersing themselves in the lives of Marc and Bella.
Chagall’s works illustrate a man who “sees the world through the lens of love. That is purely what he cares about,” Mayhak said.
The actor said it was that perspective that sustained Chagall, “given the devastating times that he lived through. And in many instances, he was in the heart of that devastation and still found ways to hold onto the love that he found through Bella and through his faith and through his art.”
Taking a deep dive into the life of someone who, against many odds, chose to lead with that outlook has been an inspirational journey.
Mayhak, who auditioned for the Quantum production on the recommendation of Front Porch co-producer Nancy Zionts, began researching the artist’s life when he was cast in the role. While reams of artworks and scholarly writings were available to him, much less is known about Bella.
Laird grew up knowing about Chagall through her father’s love of art, but most of what is known about Bella is through the eyes of her husband and translations of her books: “First Encounter,” a Chagall-illustrated account of shtetl life “as experienced by Bella and Marc as children and young lovers,” and “Burning Lights: A Unique Double Portrait of Russia.”
“Immediately when I knew I was going to do this, I dove in and tried to research a lot about her,” said Laird, a Carnegie Mellon graduate.
Reading Bella’s books, Laird discovered that “she had a miraculous voice. I really fell in love with her. I think Marc says that she was ‘the representation of a lost Jewish soul,’ and she burned really bright, but no one really knew who she was.”
What we know, mostly, is that Bella’s husband rendered images of her over and over again.
“Her love for him expanded everything,” Laird said. “And she put everything into getting him to not give up on his work and his love of art, even if it meant putting her stuff to the side.”
Bella and Marc met in 1909, and were together until her death in 1944. The Chagalls had fled the war in Europe and moved to New York in 1941. They intended to return to France in 1944, when Bella fell ill with a throat infection and died a few days later.
The Chagall Musical, as the Quantum production is subtitled, “delves into the informational aspects of the story that have to do with what happened historically,” Mayhak said. “The throughline is always love, and how Bella helps [Marc] connect to his art. … To me, it’s like this is how we survived all of the different steps that we had to take through fire. We were able to hang onto each other and if we burned, then we burned, but we’ll do it in love.”
Quantum’s production is running simultaneously with Violins of Hope Greater Pittsburgh, a free exhibition of instruments rescued from the Holocaust, now at Carnegie Mellon’s Posner Center. Each instrument has “a unique and emotional history that tells the story of perseverance and hope.”
Although the instruments are too delicate to be played in the show, on October 17, Quantum hosted an event at Rodef Shalom, where speakers discussed Chagall’s works and how they reflected the times he live in, and “how lessons of history resonate inside the contemporary issues of equality, tolerance and hope.”
The Chagall’s Jewish faith is a big part of their story, and performing the work in a synagogue during these fraught times is not far from the minds of all involved.
“We haven’t actually sat down and had a specific conversation about it,” Mayhak said. “But I think that it’s something that we’re certainly all keenly aware of. … I think that it certainly touches just another chord given the content of the show and the birthplace and the background of the artists.
“In the spirit of Chagall,” he continued, “I think he would really want love to be winning on all sides. It’s difficult not to be thinking about all of the innocent people in many different places who are being affected by what seems to be senselessness. So hopefully color and love can win somehow. But yeah, it’s definitely something that’s on our minds.”
Laird said director Zajac has talked about the emotions that the show is likely to evoke as they watch her character’s heavy emotional burdens.
“At the end of the day, our story is about love that is throughout everything. I hope we can do it justice, and there is an amount of responsibility for portraying these characters, especially at this time,” Laird said.
Mayhak asked if could follow up that thought with another Chagall quote: “The dignity of the artist lies in his duty of keeping awake the sense of wonder in the world.”
That sense of wonder, so evident in his art, reflects “how we are all naturally wondrous of how the world works,” Mayhak said.
That goes for religion and faith, and most importantly, he added, love.
“So hopefully,” the actor said, “it’s that sense of wonder that people can take away from this show, and to continue to have that hope that we can all figure things out.”
It’s worth noting, too, that both Bella and Marc Chagall loved the theater. Bella aspired to be an actress at one time, and, in the early 1920s, Marc created fantastical murals for the State Jewish Chamber Theater in Moscow.
The artist saw theater through the same lens with which he viewed everything else.
“I adore the theater, and I am a painter,” Marc Chagall wrote. “I think the two are made for a marriage of love.”
TICKETS AND DETAILS
Quantum Theatre’s production of The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk (The Chagall Musical) is at Rodef Shalom Congregation, 4905 Fifth Ave., October 28-November 26, 2023. Show timeless are 8 p.m. Wednesday-Sunday, plus 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets and special events: https://www.quantumtheatre.com/vitebsk/.