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(Above) Garvin Wolfe van Dernoot (left in photo) as Russian avant-garde artist Kazimir Severinovich Malevich and John Drea as Russian-French artist Marc Chagall in Chagall in School at Theater Wit. Photos by Anthony La Penna. (Click on images to view larger versions.)

Inspired by actual events in Marc Chagall’s life, this new world premiere comedy by Chicago playwright James Sherman provides an insightful look into the early modernist’s shtetel of Vitebsk, Russia.

20-Sep-22 – Just after the Bolshevik Revolution, Marc Chagall was asked to serve as head administrator at a new school for artists that allowed anyone to explore their artistic ambitions by studying with the masters. As a painter, Chagall had no real experience in institution management and found the task daunting, especially when getting pushback from his faculty who did not share his vision of allowing all perspectives.

In Chagall in School, now playing at Theater Wit in Chicago’s Lake View neighborhood, the audience gets an unvarnished look at what goes on behind-the-scenes in the art world and the ultimate result of anguish for the artist. Thankfully for the world, Chagall went on to create the most beautiful, colorful, and engaging art ever seen.

Photo by Anthony La Penna

(Left) John Drea (left in photo) and Myles Schwarz as Russian artist El Lissitzky.

Sherman (Beau Jest, The Ben Hecht Show, The God of Isaac) was inspired to write this play after seeing an exhibit in 2018 at The Jewish Museum in New York – Chagall, Lissitzky, Malevich – and thought the artists’ search for authenticity would make a good play. Indeed, it has.

The show is peppered with Jewish humor, especially from Chagall’s wife, Berta, and evokes much laughter. Undertones of anti-Semitism smolder in the dialog, showing that while leadership at the school may have changed, some things remain the same.

Performed by the Grippo Stage Company, Chagall in School is directed by Chicago-based Georgette Verdin.

The cast includes John Drea as Marc Chagall, Yourtana Sulaiman as Berta Chagall, Fred Wellisch as Yuri Pen, Peter Ferneding as Alexander Romm, Daniella Rukin as Vera Ermolaeva, Myles Schwarz as El Lissitzky, David Lipschutz as David Yackerson, and Warren Duncan as Kazimir Malevich.

As Chagall, Drea brings out the insecurity the artist endures in all of his interactions. His youthful energy radiates throughout the show. Yourtana Sulaiman plays his dedicated wife, Berta, who truly believes in Chagall’s genius. She is beautiful, warm, and sincere. In her inimitable style, she says, “We Jews practice the art of survival.” Shout-outs also to Myles Schwartz for his passionate performance as Chagall’s main adversary.

(Right) Drea and Yourtana Sulaiman as Berta Chagall.

Photo by Anthony La Penna

Set designer Abbie Reed’s magnificent rendering of Chagall’s art in the rotating stage backdrop showcases Chagall’s brilliant paintings and glass windows, encouraging the audience to learn more. Credit also to costume designer Becca Duff for her authentic Bolshevik costumes.

For this reviewer, the show was personal because my grandfather was born in Vitebsk around the same time as Chagall and it brought the city back to life.

Chagall in School is playing through October 8 at Theater Wit, 1229 West Belmont Avenue. Running time is 90 minutes without intermission. Masks and proof of vaccination are required.

Other theatre recommendations

Enjoy Noel Coward’s comedy Hay Fever, which focuses on the eccentric Bliss family, whose hospitality is anything but hospitable. Through October 9 at City Lit Theater, 1020 West Bryn Mawr Avenue.

In May 2023, look for the world premiere of Shaw vs. Tunney, by Douglas Post, at Theatre Wit. Based on The Prizefighter and the Playwright by Jay R. Tunney, Shaw vs. Tunney is about the deep relationship between Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw and Tunney’s father, Gene Tunney, world heavyweight boxing champion from 1926 to 1928.

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