Maybe it's because I read it in my formative teenage years, maybe it's because it toes that precious line between sweet and saccharine, delightful and derivative, but there's something about Jonathan Safran-Foer's Everything is Illuminated that makes it my litmus test for poignant whimsy:
"But more than that, no unloving words were ever spoken, and everything was held up as another small piece of proof that it can be this way, it doesn't have to be that way; if there is no love in the world, we will make a new world, and we will give it heavy walls, and we will furnish it with soft red interiors, from the inside out, and give it a knocker that resonates like a diamond falling to a jeweler's felt so that we should never hear it."
Foer's influence shows up elsewhere during Spoleto Festival USA, as we note in our preview for the contemporary opera Tree of Codes, so perhaps I'm just a Foer fiend on a binge, looking for connections to his portrayal of the Holocaust, through love stories, in every medium possible.
I can't ignore the common thread, though, found in both Kneehigh Theatre's colorful, sweet, tragic, and otherworldy production of Flying Lovers of Vitebsk and the work of Foer. While Foer is creating fiction derived from truth, Flying Lovers is based in reality — Marc Chagall and Bella Rosenfeld really did exist as Jewish citizens in the tumultuous and terrifying world of early 20th century Russia.
But last night we didn't see Chagall and Rosenfeld. We saw Marc Antolin and Daisy Maywood — directed by the brilliant Emma Rice — playing Marc and Bella. In the slightly foggy, empyrean realm of the oldest theater in America, Antolin waltzed down from the side of the orchestra towards the stage as people were still shuffling towards their seats. Dark curls framed his painted white face as he crooned Ella Fitzgerald: "I'm making believe that you're in my arms/Though I know you're so far away/Making believe I'm talking to you/ Wish you could hear what I say."
The sudden outburst of song, sung in front of the absurdly tilted stage, made everyone pause, mid stride. If you hadn't read anything about the production, you may have thought you were in for an evening of musical theater. If you had done your due diligence and knew the narrative, you would've thought, 'OK, this will work, I think?' No matter your background, though, you were in. The stragglers hurried to their seats as the music died down, ready to accept whatever came next. It was, for me at least, like a Foer sentiment on crack. I was sold.
When I interviewed Antolin, he said that while there is a responsibility in portraying a person who actually existed, there's also "a lovely thing about portraying a person in theater — you can reinvent it yourself and put yourself in it."
If you're a diehard Chagall fan or most interested in the history Chagall and Rosenfeld bore witness to, well, there's some of that. But this is no biographical piece infused with clever props and occasional song for the sake of aesthetics. This is a whole new world, one in which we are privy to the intimate space between two bright young people, tripping over and falling into love and loneliness and failure and fear.
We see Chagall's paintings, the famous flying lovers, as Antolin and Maywood move sumptuously across the small, elevated stage, donning silly hats and flinging quirky props. We see the two meet, for the first time, and with the effects of the stage, and the lighting, and the music (the production would not work without the incredible performances from the two musicians, James Gow and Ian Ross) we feel deep down, all the way to the soles of our feet — love at first sight.
The narrative is fluid, chronological, a smart move when there is so much whimsy at play. It keeps the story grounded enough so that the audience can follow along. We see the two marry — far and away my favorite scene. "Can you hear my eyes?" asks Marc. "Yes, can you hear mine?" answers Bella. The music gets louder, Antolin and Maywood don ridiculous costumes and stomp about, singing and laughing as the bright lights illuminate the stage. It's a sensory overload of love and, like in the often hyperbolic world of Foer, it works.
I cried, really cried, three times I believe. My sister, seated next to me, was not convinced. I could tell she was not as taken, sitting far back in her seat as I teetered on the edge of mine. After the show I asked her what she thought. "I just didn't love Chagall," she said. "I just didn't buy some of it." And I agreed, sure, Chagall or at least the version Antolin plays, is a bit bothersome. He is, as many creatives are wont to be, selfish as hell; he leaves Bella alone in a cold flat for hours in St. Petersburg, he isn't there when their only daughter is born, and in a later scene he utters one of the cruelest things an artist can say to another artist, sending Bella running off stage.
Maywood's Bella is brave, though, and she suffers through it all because, one imagines, she's in love. We learn more about Bella than we could ever hope — her writing was not published until after she died, and it's difficult to truly know her when her image has become a symbol, an infinite capture of love. Maywood makes her human, allows her to become frustrated with Marc's whims, gives her a voice beyond the stroke of a brush.
I disagreed with my sister about the "buying it" part. I bought it all, the whole house, because at the end of the day, it was a lot like love, real life love, not just the hour and a half version. It resonated — sometimes your partner's quirks are oh-so-endearing. Sometimes they're enervating. Sometimes whimsy in the face of tragedy is a silly farce that falls flat. And sometimes it's a charming delight, a reminder that as imperfect as love is, as much as it's not like flying, it's as close as we'll ever get.