The Show Must Go On, Come Hell, High Water — Or Coronavirus

During the coronavirus pandemic, theater’s famous catchphrase — “The show must go on” — has taken a new, elevated meaning, as physical performance spaces remain closed to the public. But two British theater companies, Kneehigh Theatre Company and Bristol Old Vic, have managed to bring their latest collaboration, “The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk,” to home audiences around the world.

“Flying Lovers of Vitebsk,” written by Daniel Jamieson, tells the story of turbulent lovers Marc Chagall — born Moishe Zakharovich Shagall in the town of Vitebsk, Belarus — and his wife, Bella Rosenfeld. Their 29-year marriage, marked by both intense passion and Chagall’s single-minded focus on his art, ended with Bella’s death.

Yet, the most loving of marriages has its glitches, such as when Bella gave birth to the couple’s daughter and realized that her husband had disappeared for four days to work on a new painting.

On Chagall’s canvas, the two lovers flew in the air, unencumbered by earthly concerns. But as an undercurrent, their marriage from 1915-1944 spanned World War I and II, the Communist revolution, the rise of Hitler and the Holocaust, during which Nazi troops slaughtered the 50,000 Jews in Vitebsk.

Marc Antolin as Marc Chagall in “The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk”; PHOTO CREDIT: Steve Tanner

The play was first performed in 2016 in London, with Jamieson doubling in the role of Chagall. Some 5437 miles to the west, the Wallis Center for the Performing Arts in Los Angeles staged the play in 2018 and scored a critical and commercial success.

However, with the global COVID-19 outbreak, the traditional staging of the play was no longer possible. Fortunately, British impresario Emma Rice, who directed the Wallis run and helms the upcoming production, had an innovative idea.

Rice, who is the former artistic director at the Shakespeare Globe Theater in London and now the founder and artistic director of the Bristol-based Wise Children touring company, suggested an international collaboration to beam the play to subscribers around the world.

Preparing for the live-streamed production called for extensive safety measures, according to Rice. The play’s two principals, Marc Antolin as Chagall and Audrey Brisson as Bella, plus two on-stage musicians, each took a coronavirus test before forming a “bubble” — also known as a “social pod” or “quaranteam” of rule-abiding members.

Audrey Brisson as Bella Chagall in “The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk”; PHOTO CREDIT: Steve Tanner

Rice noted in a press release that “While nothing will ever replace the thrill of a night out at the theater, this broadcast — fresh, fun and intimate — is a wonderful adventure.”

Noting the challenges facing the arts in a pandemic world, Wallis artistic director Paul Crewes observed, “In a world that is suffering at the moment in many ways, it is becoming clear to many the importance of culture in defining who we are as human beings. As Marc Chagall said, ‘If all life moves inevitably towards its end, then we must, during our own, colour it with our colours of love and hope.’”

Although Chagall, who died in 1985 at the age of 97, was not a devoutly religious Jew, his paintings and stained glass windows, found in synagogues and museums around the world, reflected his encompassing Jewish spirit and soul.

Art critic Robert Hughes referred to Chagall as “the quintessential Jewish artist of the 20th century,” and art historian Michael J. Lewis noted that Chagall “remains the most important visual artist to have been born within the world of East European Jewry.”

To contemporary theater and moviegoers, Chagall may be best known indirectly through his painting “The Fiddler” (Le Violoniste, 1912-13), which is generally considered the inspiration for the title of the enormously successful musical “Fiddler on the Roof.”

Tickets for viewing “The Flying Lovers” on a Smart TV, computer, smartphone or tablet can be obtained by visiting TheWallis.org/Lovers, by email to [email protected] Wallis.org or by phoning (310) 746-4000 on Thursdays and Fridays between 9:30 a.m. and 2:30 p.m.

Ticket holders can view the show 24/7 on demand from Friday, December 11, starting at 8 p.m. through December 18, starting at 7:59 p.m.

A British company, which is in charge of ticketing, has set the price per ticket at £16, equal to $21.38 at the current exchange rate (credit cards will be charged in U.S. dollars).

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