Sometimes it’s fun to sashay into a theater cold, without the slightest notion of what you’re in for. But before seeing “The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk,” the Kneehigh Theatre production now at the Wallis in Beverly Hills, you might want to refresh your memory of the art of Marc Chagall.
Chagall's early paintings of himself and his wife, Bella, soaring over the rooftops of their hometown in Belarus inspired Daniel Jamieson’s script and Emma Rice's delicate staging.
The enchanting production abounds in references to Chagall’s aesthetic: his off-kilter perspective, unexpected colors and riotous flowers, as well as the clothing and quirky postures of his recurring, airborne lovers. Even the funny tilt of Bella’s left ankle in “Over the Town” (1918) is lovingly reproduced — subtly, and so briefly that having their inspirations fresh in your mind will enhance your appreciation of the visual artistry at work here by Rice and her designers.
“Do you know why people paint?” Chagall (Marc Antolin) asks a biographer who has telephoned him, late in his life, to bloviate about the “hypnogogic and eidetic imagery” in his work. He goes on to explain: “When some things are gone, you feel an agony of need to remember.”
The city of Vitebsk was destroyed by the Nazis in World War II, Chagall tells the audience, and his beloved Bella (Daisy Maywood) is now dead, too. Painting is the only way he can recapture the past — its vanished iconography, the rituals and music of his Jewish upbringing and the thrilling vertigo of young love.
Nostalgia certainly isn’t foreign to any of us, but to achieve the right mindset for this show, I also recommend reading Rice’s director's note in the program before the lights dim. (Rice was one of the artistic directors of Kneehigh, in Cornwall, England, until she became the artistic director of Shakespeare’s Globe in London in 2016.) In it she describes how she and Jamieson first co-starred as Marc and Bella in an earlier version of “The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk,” then called “Birthday,” 20 years ago. They were a couple themselves at that time, engaged to be married. Working on this revival, long after their own marriage ended, she writes, was also nostalgic for them.
And if that doesn’t reel you in, Ian Ross’ score is a surefire heartstring-tugger. Ross and James Gow play live on a variety of instruments as Antolin and Maywood sing. Based on the klezmer music of Eastern European Yiddish commuities, it conveys the mingled joy and grief, celebration and mourning, that this production evokes visually as well.
To someone not in the right mood, the relentless whimsy of “The Flying Lovers” might seem precious or begin to cloy. Marc and Bella, particularly as they act out their early years, seem less like human beings than iconic figures from art or commedia del’arte. Their faces are mime-white, with red cheeks and lips, and the ecstasy of their young love has a childlike unreality: On their honeymoon, as they lie together in bliss, Bella daintily somersaults onto Marc’s chest and begins ladling milk into his mouth from a bucket.
Sophia Clist’s costumes and scenic design keep the pair perpetually within the borders of an evolving Chagall painting, which Malcolm Rippeth lights to gorgeous effect, in fitting homage to a painter of whom Picasso once said, “There’s been anybody since Renoir who has the feeling for light that Chagall has.”
But the script also has historical ambitions that seem too big to fit into such a limited framework. That includes conveying the sweeping sociopolitical backdrop of Marc and Bella’s life together, including both World Wars, as well taking us through Marc’s entire, peripatetic career.
The pair endured plenty of hardship, poverty, misunderstanding and bigotry along with their moments of soaring bliss. They argued over Marc’s dedication to his art, which often left Bella alone to raise their daughter, rather than pursue her own dream as a writer. These bad times are duly portrayed, but in an undifferentiated stream that makes it difficult to process their impact or perceive how they color the portrait as a whole. A smaller focus might make this bittersweet love story even sharper.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
‘The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk’
Where: Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, 9390 N. Santa Monica Blvd., Beverly Hills
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays; ends March 11
Information: (310) 746-4000 or TheWallis.org/Lovers
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes