A new play about Marc Chagall, plus a master musician on stage

Marc Chagall, the Russian-Jewish artist born in 1887 in the city of Vitebsk (in what is now Belarus), lived to the ripe old age of 97.

HedyWeiss image
A new play called Chagall in School¸ set to open in late summer, will center around “the quintessential Jewish artist of the 20th century.” (Credit: Yousuf Karsh. Marc Chagall, 1965. Gift of Estrellita Karsh, in memory of Yousuf Karsh. © Estate of Yousuf Karsh.)

Marc Chagall, the Russian-Jewish artist born in 1887 in the city of Vitebsk (in what is now Belarus), lived to the ripe old age of 97. Along the way he created a massive treasury of paintings, drawings, book illustrations, stage sets, and a great deal more, all in a style that was a unique blend of surreal Jewish folk culture and modernism.

Now, James Sherman, the prolific Chicago playwright, actor, and teacher, has written a new play, Chagall in School , that homes in on a notable period in the life of "the quintessential Jewish artist of the 20th century."  

Here is a closer look at Sherman's latest project, plus a reminder of a musical note that will be sounded this month.

The world of Marc Chagall

James Sherman, who has more than a dozen widely produced plays to his credit (including " God of Isaac ," " Beau Gest ," and " The Ben Hecht Show "), began his career as a writer and performer at The Second City, subsequently spent nearly two decades as a Playwright-in-Residence at the Victory Gardens Theatre, and currently teaches undergraduate classes in improvisation and the history of American comedy at Columbia College and the Theater School of DePaul University.

In 2018, during a trip to New York to catch up on some shows, Sherman paid a visit to an exhibit at the Jewish Museum titled "Chagall, Lissitzky, Malevich: The Russian Avant-Garde in Vitebsk, 1918-1922," that was described as capturing "a little known chapter in the history of modernity and the Russian avant-garde." The exhibit's focus was on the People's Art School, which existed from 1918-1922 and was founded by Chagall (born Moishe Shagal) in his hometown city of Vitebsk shortly after he was appointed Fine Arts Commissioner for the region.

All this occurred after the Russian Revolution of 1917 resulted in a brief period of political change that gave Jews full Russian citizenship for the first time. It also coincided with the artist's joy in his new marriage to the great love of his life, Bella Rosenfeld, who became his muse. Chagall left Vitebsk in 1920 to live in Moscow and work for a newly established Jewish theater there, and as politics changed, he soon moved back to Paris, where he had lived earlier for several years.

Sherman describes his new play as "a comedy set in a honeymoon period for the arts and Jews in Russia." He became fascinated by the premise of "a revolutionary art school that was housed in a mansion, was free of charge and open to men and women of all ages, and whose teachers included Lissitzky and Malevich, as well as Chagall's early teacher, the realist Yehuda (Yuri) Pen, and others. And they are among the characters in the play with a cast of eight that includes six male and one female painter, plus Chagall's wife."

"The tension in the play is rooted in the very different styles of Chagall (who was influenced by the Cubists like Kandinsky and Picasso during his time in Paris, but wanted to hold on to his own distinctive voice, with its Jewish village roots and mystical imagery), and those who were part of the Suprematist movement that was growing in popularity, and of which Lissitzky and Malevich were great advocates. And the action in the play moves back and forth between Chagall's meetings with faculty members and his wife."

Although Sherman did not have a cast fully lined up for the play when we chatted, he noted: "Chagall was in his early 30s at the time it takes place, so I wanted someone young to direct the play, and I chose Georgette Verdin, who has helmed several successful productions in Chicago recently, and is the recipient of the 2022 Michael Maggio Directing Fellowship of the Goodman Theatre."

The Grippo Stage Company production of Sherman's play,
Chagall in School , will run Aug. 26 - Oct. 16 at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont. Phone (773) 975-8150.

One final note: The Art Institute of Chicago is an excellent repository of Chagall's work including America Windows , his six-panel stained glass work in brilliant blue that features the inclusion of uncharacteristically secular images-suggesting American history, the Chicago skyline, and the arts-and was the artist's gift to the city in 1977.  You can also see The Four Seasons, his vast outdoor mosaic wall mural located in Exelon Plaza, at 10 S. Dearborn in the Loop.

Musical note:Miriam Fried at the Ravinia Festival

Violinist Miriam Fried was born in Romania, moved to Israel at the age of two, and now lives in Boston. But for the past three decades, she has spent her summers at the Ravinia Festival in Highland Park where she has been the artistic director and chair of faculty at the Ravinia Steans Music Institute. The Institute, a destination for young professionals, helps guide gifted string players and pianists, as well as classical singers and jazz musicians from many countries, and is largely devoted to fostering small group collaborations. "I love my job," said Fried, "because the future of music is in the hands of these young people."

Fried also performs at Ravinia, and on June 21 she will collaborate with her son, pianist Jonathan Biss, on a program of violin sonatas by Mozart, Janacek, Bartok, and Debussy. (Fried's husband is a violinist and violist, and her other son, Daniel Biss, is currently the mayor of Evanston.)

For tickets, visit Ravinia.org.

Hedy Weiss, a longtime Chicago arts critic, was the Theater and Dance Critic for the   Chicago Sun-Times   from 1984 to 2018, and currently writes for   WTTW-TV's   website and contributes to the   Chicago Tonight   program.

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