“Not that it matters, but most of what follows is true,” reads the supertitle projected over a stage sparsely set with stools. Enter a small conference of artists tasked with establishing a school to nurture and transmit their craft. Amid the heady debate over whether history and technique are still relevant in a new world of abstract emotion comes a pressing question: “Marc, when do we get paid?”
Chagall in School Through 10/8: Thu-Sat 8 PM, Sun 2 PM, Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont, 773-975-8150, grippostagecompany.com, $38-$42
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Marc (John Drea) is Marc Chagall, who has the privilege and the pain of leading the school in Vitebsk, which is, for better or for worse, not Moscow, in the years after the Bolshevik Revolution. The others are traditional Yuri Pen (Fred A. Wellisch), the only one with any teaching experience; strong-willed Cubist Vera Ermolaeva (Daniella Rukin); Alexander Romm (Peter Ferneding), a dandy and a flirt; and fiery, pretentious El Lissitzky (Myles Schwarz). (“I paint what I feel, and what I feel does not exist in nature,” he declares.) The revolutionary spirit permeates their discussions on the nature and substance of proletarian art, the value of life studies postrevolution, or whether they ought to have among their numbers Kazimir Malevich, pioneer in the Suprematist movement, which is characterized either by pure feeling or pure geometry, depending on whom you ask. (Don’t ask David Yackerson, played by David Lipschutz, who also teaches at the school for reasons unknown to even himself.)
Chagall’s dreamy assemblages, saturated blues, with goats and hens as sentient as fiancées and brides all drifting in an alternate gravity, are no longer the fashion. “I should have been a lawyer”—or a farmer—or a soldier, he laments to Berta, his encouraging wife, who loves him more than diamonds. (As played by Yourtana Sulaiman, Berta is charming, sensual, saucy, and devoted to Moshka the man and Marc Chagall the artist with a conviction that is an extension of her own self-assurance. No man deserves such a woman—except Berta is not wrong: he is Marc Chagall.)
“I’m filled with the spirit of nonobjective feeling,” announces Malevich (Garvin Wolfe van Dernoot) when he finally arrives at the school with an angular modern dance break that puts Suprematism on a level with empathicalism as a philosophy of life and art. The intrusion of this tall blond Gentile in this dubiously utopian Jewish art commune amplifies the squabbles about whether or not artists should still paint fruit. But does a banana represent enthrallment to a defunct past or the right to freedom of expression?James Sherman’s Chagall in School, directed by Georgette Verdin for Grippo Stage Company, keeps these blood matters light yet loving. Projections of the artworks ground the evening in enough realism to remind us that art persists in spite of whatever humans suffer or say about it.