Review: Art and Politics at War in Chagall in School by Grippo Stage Company

Art is enmeshed in the politics of the Russian revolution in James Sherman’s new play, Chagall in School, now being staged by Grippo Stage Company at Theater Wit. Georgette Verdin directs this world premiere, based on events in the life of artist Marc Chagall and featuring a star-studded roster of famous artists of the period. Sherman’s dialogue is crisp and well-written to illuminate the divisions in this century-ago world of art and politics.

Chagall, who has already had some success working in Paris (and a successful solo show in Berlin), returns to his hometown of Vitebsk (in what is now Belarus). He’s appointed commissar of visual arts for Vitebsk and asked to lead a new school for artists. Vitebsk is a Jewish city and the new Communist government has made it safe to make Jewish art.

The play opens on the first day of classes at the Vitebsk Arts College. Chagall (John Drea) is meeting with his faculty members and it’s clear from the beginning that there’s no agreement on much of anything. It’s 1919 and some are still getting used to the customs of the new revolutionary society. (Chagall has to be reminded to call his colleagues “comrade.”)

John Drea as Chagall and Myles Schwarz as El Lissitsky. Photo by Anthony La Penna.

There’s an immediate confrontation with El Lissitsky (Myles Schwarz), who demands that art be revolutionary and Suprematist. Chagall’s old teacher, Yuri Pen (Fred A. Wellisch) insists there must be classes in drawing and painting models and still life—because “you have to know the rules before you can break them.” El Lissitsky is furious. “We must make art for the new man,” he says. “Not apples, bananas … and landscapes.” The Suprematist movement disdains all reference to objective reality in their art. (The debate between classicists and modernists is centuries old. The classicists argue for beauty and realism while the modernists want to break with the past, ignore the academy, and create abstraction. El Lissitsky is accused of only painting squares and triangles.)

Alexander Romm (Peter Ferneding), an art historian, tries to help Chagall mediate the dispute. Vera Ermolaeva (Danielle Rukin) agrees and wants the school to be run properly. Chagall’s goal is to create an atmosphere where independent artists can work and teach in their own unique style. But Lissitsky is insistent—and demands that Malevich (an influential avant-garde artist) join the faculty. He’s been invited, but hasn’t appeared, Chagall says. Where’s Malevich? Is the persistent question.

John Drea as Chagall and Yourtana Sulaiman as Berta. Photo by Anthony La Penna.

Artist studio scenes alternate with Chagall’s scenes at home with his wife Berta (fiercely played by Yourtana Sulaiman). Berta lovingly pushes her husband to paint and extend himself, knowing he has already been recognized as a talented artist. They are living on the edge of poverty since he’s not receiving much income from the school; they need more income to properly support their family since they now have a daughter Ida. “You are Marc Fucking Chagall!” she says as she tells him he must paint. (Although that word may seem jarring in a period play, scholars say the use of “fucking” as an intensifier was in use by the middle of the 19th century.)

Later Kasimir Malevich (Garvin Wolfe van Dernoot) appears at Chagall’s home to discuss art and the future of the school. Their debate is a highlight of the play. “We thought we had changed with impressionism and cubism,” Malevich says. “But that’s not revolution.” Schwarz and Van

Late in the play, the debate comes to a head after the sign at the door of the school is changed to read Suprematist Academy. The studio scene that follows brings the classic vs. the Suprematist debate to a head.

Throughout the play, the work of the various artists is projected on the rear wall of the stage. Although Chagall is considered a pioneer of modern art, his visual imagery was fanciful and figurative; he often included animals and pastoral elements, as well as Jewish imagery. (Malevich tells him, “If you don’t want to be stuck in the past, you have to give up your trees!”) Chagall’s two important Chicago works—at the Art Institute of Chicago and on the Chase Bank plaza—appear on the screen at the end of the play.

Drea and Sulaiman are a thoroughly believable loving and striving couple. I would have liked to see Drea play artist Chagall with more strength and less vulnerability, however. It’s true that Chagall is a young man at this time—probably 32 or 33—but he has already achieved enough success to gain confidence, which his performance on opening night did not reflect. Schwarz and Van Dernoot are an oddly matched pair of Suprematists. Lissitsky makes his arguments by shouting, while his mentor seems to make reasonable arguments for his point of view.

The severely simple stage set (scenic design by Abbie Reed) with its rear window and projection screen, works very well. Lighting design is by Eric Watkins and sound by Erik Siegling. Projection design and engineering is by Erin Pleake. Alanna Young is stage manager.

Chagall goes on to have a long and illustrious career painting, illustrating books, designing stage sets, creating stained glass, ceramics and tapestries. He lived in the US for a while and died at age 97 in France. El Lissitsky was an important avant-garde artist and member of the Constructivist movement and also influenced the Bauhaus. The Vitebsk art academy was dissolved in 1922.

James Sherman is a Chicago playwright and teaches at DePaul University and Columbia College. His other plays include Beau Jest, The God of Isaac, Magic Time and Affluenza.  

Chagall in School by Grippo Stage Company continues through October 8 at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave. Tickets are $36-$42 for performances Thursday-Sunday. Running time is 90 minutes with no intermission.

For more information on this and other productions, see www.theatreinchicago.com.

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Nancy S Bishop
Nancy S Bishop

Nancy S. Bishop is publisher and Stages editor of Third Coast Review. She’s a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and a 2014 Fellow of the National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center. You can read her personal writing on pop culture at nancybishopsjournal.com, and follow her on Twitter @nsbishop. She also writes about film, books, art, architecture and design.

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