James Sherman’s new 90 minute play Chagall in School now on at Theatre Wit in Lakeview is an interesting dip into the early career of one of my favorite artists. Purportedly based on actual events, a young Marc Chagall founds and then flees a provincial People’s Art School following the Russian Revolution. The show takes a long time to ask the fundamental question of what freedom means to an artist, but the journey is enjoyable.
Director Georgette Verdin has assembled a charming cast: the very young and idealistic Chagall played by John Drea is admirably partnered by his strong supportive wife Berta played by Yourtana Sulaiman. Chagall is foiled by the autocratic self styled leader of Suprematism, Kazimir Malevich, played with unstinting fervor by Garvin Wolfe Van Dernoot. Chagall envisions an institution where anyone, regardless of training or background, can be free to paint what they want, and Malevich believes there is only one style, his, and one future for art. The war of words and battle of ideas circles round until Chagall abandons the school and moves on into his life to become one of the twentieth century’s most beloved artists.
The Grippo Stage Company has indicated Vitebsk, Russia convincingly inside the small box of Theatre Wit, and Erin Pleake’s projections help us see the actual works of art that this band of well meaning educators from another time and place created. The play becomes a jewel box of an art history lesson.
What is compelling about this piece is that it leads to contemplation of whether there is ever a right and a wrong way to make art. This is a conversation that art makers and art theorists continue to have. Art viewers, I think, just know what they do and do not like. For me the piece was the beginning of a longer thought process, as it sent me home to read more about the various abstract movements that emerged with the twentieth century. Notably this play acknowledges the issues of Chagall’s intrinsically Jewish art and but to me it skimmed over the underlying antisemitism of the art world and did a disservice to what was to come. In fairness though, that may be as it should be: no one could believe it was happening when it did. But lest you think it’s all serious and dry, fear not– Chagall in school has moments of comedy and mirth– several in the form of David Yackerson played by David Lipshutz. And the banter between Peter Ferneding’s Alexander Romm and Daniella Rukin’s feminist Vera Ermolaeva is a delight.
There are no great conclusions in this play, but there is a great deal to think about and learn.
Chagall in School is playing Thursdays through Sundays at Theatre Wit 1229 W.Belmont in Chicago. For tickets and information go to https://grippostagecompany.com/chagall-in-school