Art style

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

Art is entangled in the politics of the Russian Revolution in James Sherman’s new play, Chagall at school, currently staged by the 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 list of famous artists of the time. Sherman’s dialogue is crisp and well-written to illuminate the divisions in that world of art and politics a century ago.

Chagall, who had already had success working in Paris (and a successful solo exhibition in Berlin), returned to his hometown of Vitebsk (in present-day Belarus). He was appointed curator of visual arts in Vitebsk and invited to lead a new school of artists. Vitebsk is a Jewish city and the new communist government has secured the creation of Jewish art.

The play opens on the first day of classes at Vitebsk Arts College. Chagall (John Drea) meets with his faculty members and it’s clear from the start that there isn’t much agreement. It’s 1919 and some are still getting used to the customs of the new revolutionary society. (Chagall should be reminded to call his colleagues “comrade”.)

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

There is an immediate confrontation with El Lissitsky (Myles Schwarz), who demands that art be revolutionary and supremacist. Chagall’s former teacher, Yuri Pen (Fred A. Wellisch) insists that there must be lessons in drawing and painting models and still lifes, because “you have to know the rules before you can infringe”. El Lissitsky is furious. “We have to make art for the new man,” he says. “Not apples, bananas… and landscapes.” The Suprematist movement disdains any reference to objective reality in its art. (The debate between classics and modernists is centuries old. Classics argue for beauty and realism while modernists want to break with the past, ignore the academy and create abstraction. El Lissitsky is accused of not paint only 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 style. But Lissitsky insists and demands that Malevich (an influential avant-garde artist) join the faculty. He was invited, but did not appear, says Chagall. Where is Malevich? Is the lingering question.

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

Scenes in an artist’s studio alternate with scenes of Chagall at home with his wife Berta (played fiercely by Yourtana Sulaiman). Berta lovingly pushes her husband to paint and expand, knowing that he has already been recognized as a talented artist. They live on the edge of poverty since he does not receive much income from school; they need more income to support their family since they now have a daughter Ida. “You are Marc Fucking Chagall!” she said telling him that he has to paint. (Although that word might sound offensive in a period piece, scholars say the use of “kiss” as an intensifier was in use in the mid-19th century.)

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

Late in the play, the debate comes to a head after the sign on the school door is changed to read Suprematist Academy. The studio scene that follows brings the classic versus supremacist debate to a climax.

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

Drea and Sulaiman form a believable pair of love and effort. I would have liked to see Drea play the artist Chagall with more strength and less vulnerability, however. It’s true that Chagall was a young man at this time – probably 32 or 33 – but he had 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 supremacists. Lissitsky makes his arguments shouting, while his mentor appears to make reasonable arguments for his point of view.

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

Chagall pursued a long and illustrious career painting, illustrating books, designing theater sets, creating stained glass, ceramics and tapestries. He lived for a while in the United States 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. Vitebsk Art Academy was dissolved in 1922.

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

Chagall at school by Grippo Stage Company continues through October 8 at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave. Tickets cost between $36 and $42 for performances Thursday through Sunday. The duration is 90 minutes without intermission.

For more information on this and other productions, visit

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