Pittsburgh Owlscribe – For its landmark 100th production, Quantum Theatre has selected a timely staging of a work about the love and artistic life of Marc Chagall and his wife, Bella, a poet and writer.
I use the word timely because the Chagalls lived, loved and worked through some tumultuous times, including Russian pogroms against the Jews in their native town of Vitebsk (Belarus), the Russian Revolution and both World Wars. They experienced war and political upheaval, much like what’s currently plaguing the world of today in the Ukraine and Gaza.
Referencing the couple’s Russian-Jewish heritage, which made its way into Chagall’s paintings, the production features Klezmer music written by Daniel Jamieson and Ian Ross. and includes and whimsical sets by scenic designer Stephanie Mayer-Staley, in which Marc and Bella are the picture of a head-over-heels romance, floating over a Russian village or the Eiffel Tower,
To capture to mood of Chagall’s penchant for painting air-borne objects, animals and people in his works, Quantum’s production crew has created a certain sensibility of flying. “There are lots of things in the air, from suspended objects to actors on very high ladders and scaffolding, to the movement motifs, to the projections, to a very present moon… all part of creating the world of Marc Chagall!!” said Karla Boos, Quantum’s artistic director.
Sometimes alluded to as having a “fairy tale style,” Mayer-Staley’s colorful designs will immerse audiences in the world of Marc and Bella Chagall’s journey, romance, and imagination.
As to the music, Boos says “the composer Ian Ross played live in every performance of Kneehigh’s show [a previous English production], so quite a lot wasn’t written down. We started by commissioning him to give us as much on paper as he could, and then when we saw that, we asked for freedom to change the instrumentation. Having a violin was crucial to us, as well as representing the klezmer sound with a woodwind player.”
“He happily granted us freedom to do as we liked and make it our own, so when Gustavo [Zajac, the production’s director} could not help but see the piece through a personal lens and feel he would unite his emotions with a broad audience by incorporating Jewish music from his childhood, from the folk canon, that seemed really right to pursue. He spoke Yiddish at home in Argentina with his grandparents, and quite a bit is in Yiddish (beautifully coached by Nancy Zionts, (co-producer of Front Porch Theatricals).”
Staring in the roles of Marc and Bella are Dan Mayhak and Zanny Laird who portray the artistic couple in a unique and long-lasting love affair that carried them through some very dark and somber times.
Making his Quantum debut as Marc, Mayhak is no stranger to musical theater and has plenty of experience playing a leading man. Some of his credits include starring as Edward Bloom in Big Fish, Sweeney Todd in Sweeney Todd, Prince Charming in Cinderella and Jamie in The Last Five Years.
After her first appearance on the Quantum stage in 2022 in The Cherry Orchard, Zanny Laird will return as Marc Chagall’s other half, Bella Chagall. Beginning her professional career at The American Girl Theater in Chicago, Laird has spent more than 25 years in film, television, and theater around the country. As an actress, her resume includes the world premiere productions of August: Osage County at the Steppenwolf Theatre and Trust at the Lookingglass Theatre, musicals off-Broadway and with Pittsburgh CLO, and the pre-Broadway workshop of Head Over Heels at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. She performed locally in Hamlet with Pittsburgh Shakespeare in the Parks, and was an Associate Director for PMT’s Jesus Christ Superstar.
In spite of their rigorous rehearsal schedule the two actors took time out of their day to engage in the following Q&A.
Q: What was your initial concept of the character you’re playing? Did it change over time and how? What insights did the director give you?
A: (Zanny) Since these characters were real people who lived real lives, my focus was on how to bring Bella to life while honoring her. All my research informed my choices, and our director was very supportive of seeing how far we could go with our interpretations of the characters.
(Dan) Like Zanny said, given that these characters were real people who had lived through very real hardship and experienced real love, it felt most important to breathe truth into the story through the understanding of their history. Similarly, it felt important to tell the story through the lens of their somewhat fantastical view of the world, which is already supported by the text, and even more so by Gustavo’s vision and direction for the piece.
Q: Do you feel that the two characters have equal parts or is the emphasis on one of them?
A: (Zanny) Yes, I think the two characters have equal parts.
(Dan) They are absolutely equal – one would mean so much less without the other, they bring the meaning to each other. Even when the focus of a moment may be on one character, the focus of that character’s text or emotional journey is often most centered on the existence of the other. The emphasis of the show is truly on their love, which can only exist with both of them.
Q: Are the songs sung in other languages (Russian, Yiddish, French)? Is the play sung through or is there dialogue as well?
A: (Zanny) Dan and I both sing in Yiddish and I sing a few lines in French. There is a good amount of dialogue as well.
Q: How has the director influenced the show and your characterizations?
A: (Dan) Gustavo has grown up a fan of Chagall, so he has had a lot of ideas for how to infuse the essence of Chagall into certain moments, and the show as a whole.
Q: Some have described the show as having a fairy tale style. Does yours?
A: (Zanny) The style is best described as bringing a Chagall painting to life. We break the fourth wall all throughout the show and most of it is underscored so everything we do and say onstage manifests physically in a magical way. There is a large sense of play.
(Dan) the show sometimes seems to fly by in a whirlwind of whimsy, even with some of the heavy text and history that’s presented throughout. Zanny said it best with bringing a Chagall painting to life. As we work through the show, it sometimes feels as though we are no more affected by gravity than Chagall’s depictions of himself and Bella floating above the world. We jump from one brushstroke to the next, never fully landing until the piece is complete.
Q: The reviewer for the Guardian wrote “There is a moment in Daniel Jamieson’s reimagining of the relationship between Marc and Bella Chagall when the painter returns home, after an absence of four days even though his wife has just given birth, high on the exhilaration of creativity. When Bella tries to show him their daughter and confides how painful the birth had been, he replies: “Do you think what I do happens painlessly?”
What was your initial reaction to this line? How do you intend to convey your feelings about it to the audience through the characters you play? In other words, has your initial personal reaction changed so that you will be acting out a new and theatrical version?
A: (Dan) I think that this is a moment that conveys how Marc could often overlook Bella and her needs and wants. He was sometimes so unapologetically invested in his work that Bella would be overlooked. This scene using their shared newborn child to depict this offers a stark example of the dynamic, which ultimately leads to his regret of not allowing himself to see her as clearly as she saw him. Bella was Marc’s muse and often his greatest source of artistic strength when he was devoid of inspiration, even when he did not give the same attention to her needs and wants.
Q: The play is about a love affair but it’s one that’s between two artists. How much does the play explore about the life of the artist and the artistic experience set against the background of a love affair?
A: (Zanny) The play beautifully weaves together each of the characters’ artistic experiences with the underlying throughline of their great love. It is all connected.
Q: Is there a comparable film, play, book, etc. you know of that is most akin to the romantic story line?
A: (Zanny) The only thing I can compare this romantic storyline to is when Marc talks about Bella in his autobiography, My Life, and when Bella talks about Marc in her book, First Encounter.
Q: Finally, if you’ve ever had similar romantic experiences, how much have they influenced your roles? If you’re in a romantic relationship at the moment, how does your partner feel about your on stage romance? Is there a tinge of jealousy and discomfort? I once heard that playwright Arthur Miller was very uncomfortable with his wife’s (Marilyn Monroe) cinematic romantic roles and love scenes.
A: (Zanny) My husband is a professional actor, and he has a firm grasp on the distinction between theater and real life.
Zanny Laird and Dan Mayhak can be seen in The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk (The Chagall Musical) at Rodef Shalom Congregation, 5905 Fifth Avenue in Pittsburgh’s Oakland neighborhood. Through November 26. For tickets, go to quantumtheatre.com/vitebsk/