Reviews of two stunners: The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk and Ohio State Murders

by Lynn on December 12, 2020

in The Passionate Playgoer

Streaming on demand until Dec. 18, 2020.

The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk

Written by Daniel Jamieson

Directed by Emma Rice

Composer  & Musical Director, Ian Ross

Set and Costumes Designed by Sophia Clist

Lighting by Malcolm Rippeth

Sound and Broadcast Designer, Simon Baker

Co-choreographers, Etta Murfitt and Emma Rice

Cast: Marc Antolin

Audrey Brisson

Musicians: James Gow

Ian Ross

A tender, moving play about the love story of Marc Chagall and his wife Bella Chagall, given an exquisite production directed by Emma Rice.

The Story and Comment. The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk  was written by Daniel Jamieson and it’s directed brilliantly by Emma Rice. It’s produced by the powerhouse theatre company called Wise Children (Emma Rice is the founder and Artistic Director of the company), in collaboration with the Bristol Old Vic and Kneehigh theatre company.

Interestingly the play was originally entitled  Birthday when it was first done in 1992. The two people playing Marc and Bella in that original production were Daniel Jamieson and Emma Rice.

It’s a two-character play with musicians now and it’s the story of artist Marc Chagall, his obsession with art, his focus on colour and wild imagery and how he was besotted with Bella the first time he saw her.

He was born to a poor Jewish family in Vitebsk, Russia in an area that is now Belarus. She came from a wealthier Jewish family in the same town. He was awkward and shy around her, but also bold. She was confident and almost amused by this young man but she did love him. Just as quickly as they fell in love, he left for four years for Paris to paint, learn about art etc. make contacts. She was a bit miffed he was away so long and didn’t write often. He tried to explain that he had a showing in Berlin so painting occupied his time. But he also decided that when he got home he’d marry Bella.

The title of the show, The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk says everything about this charming, moving show. They were lovers and they were from Vitebsk, so that’s easy. But the flying part references Chagall’s work. He was noted for wild oversized characters, often suspended in air. And he was also known for his bold colours used in an extravagant way.  

In one painting there is a large, exaggerated man playing a violin in the air with one foot on the roof of a very small house. (yes, this is where the idea of a Fiddler on the Roof came from). In the painting “The Promenade”, Chagall painted himself and Bella euphoric in love. He’s on the ground smiling, they are holding hands but she is also smiling and is totally in the air, as if floating side-ways on a breeze.

It was a life full of uncertainty and difficulty.  They endured:  pogroms, being unsafe in Russia because they were Jewish, antisemitism, and displacement  until they finally found themselves safe and accepted in New York.  And through it all Chagall painted and was celebrated for his work. The only time he stopped painting was after Bella died of an infection. It was WWII and there was not enough medicine available to fight the infection.  But hardship comes into every love story.  

The Production and Comment. The live production of The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk  was filmed live in an “empty theatre”—the Bristol Old Vic—and Emma Rice used actors with whom she’s worked before. There actually was an audience. Emma Rice noted the two masked people over there in a side box who usually worked in the box office for the Bristol Old Vic. She noted the technicians, lighting designer etc, around the space and the person filming her while she talked to us watching from home. I found that whole introduction to the ‘empty theatre’ and the ones watching there to be very moving.

The streaming  has been held over from today Dec. 11 to Dec. 18. What people will be seeing is the recorded show, not live. It doesn’t matter—it’s all magical.

Emma Rice directs this production with her usual flair, blazing imagination and inventiveness. Sophie Clist’s set of leaning poles is quirky and seems off kilter. Poles tilt and meet at odd angles and could be considered several lopsided frames for paintings. Often Marc Antolin as Marc Chagall would lean out to Audrey Brisson as Bella as if assuming a pose in a painting or perhaps leaning into space and air. He wears make-up, a dusting of white on his face to look ghostly, otherworldly or just appropriately of the world of Chagall. She looks gamin. Together they are charming. Antolin assumes an expression of constant amazement at the images he sees and envisions. He is always curiosity, focused on creating his art, almost oblivious to the cruel world around him. Brisson is matter of fact, delicate, sensible, sometimes exasperated by him but loving just the same.  

At one point a friend comes to see Bella and she notes that the friend had a very red face. Emma Rice represents the friend as a red balloon on the end of a long string. Then I realize that Emma Rice is directing the production as if it was a Marc Chagall painting. She stages her actors as if they are often floating—all that tilting and reaching out. She uses images (the balloon) as Chagall would use images that seem odd or out of place. I thought it all was stunning. I urge people to see this wonderful production directed by this gifted director. If you can’t see an Emma Rice production in the flesh, this is the next best thing. It gives a wonderful sense of her tremendous creativity.

Be mindful of the five-hour time difference from the U.K and Canada. The times given when you order tickets are for the time in the U.K.

The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk streams digitally until Dec. 18.

For tickets please go to:

Ohio State Murders

Streamed for digital viewing.

Written by Adrienne Kennedy

Directed by Valerie Curtis-Newton

Lighting by Sherrice Mojgani

Sound by Larry Fowler

Visual Effects by Kelly Colburn

Cast: Rex Daugherty

Yao Dogbe

Heather A. Gibson

Lynda Gravátt

Billie Krishawn

Andrea Harris Smith

Note: Ohio State Murders by Adrienne Kennedy is the third play of an on line four part festival of her work. I’ve already reviewed the first two plays of that festival.

The Story and Comment. Ohio State Murders was originally produced in 1992.

Suzanne Alexander is a writer who is invited to Ohio State University to talk about her work explain why it has such violent imagery. (Suzanne Alexander is a character who often appears in Adrienne Kennedy’s work. Is she a stand in for the playwright? In some plays it does seem so).

Suzanne Alexander begins her ‘lecture’ by talking about the life of her younger self. She was in fact an undergraduate student at Ohio State in 1949. She was diligent, hard-working, shy. Attentive.  She took an English course with Professor Robert Hampshire. They were studying “Tess of the d’Urbervilles” by Thomas Hardy, about a good woman who was wronged by class, position in society, people who took advantage of her.

Young Suzanne Alexander wrote an essay for the class and the professor called her into his office. “Did you write this essay?” he asks, implying she couldn’t have. Should I say here that Suzanne is Black and the professor is white. Suzanne is slightly offended that her integrity would be called into question. She was able to comments on it her essay and the novel as proof that the work was hers.

Professor Hampshire says quietly that the essay and the analysis is brilliant. A relationship develops between Suzanne and Hampshire. When the young Suzanne speaks to the audience she refers to someone named Bobbie. She says she’s pregnant.  We realize that Bobbie is Robert Hampshire, the professor. When she tells him she’s pregnant, he says that she can’t be pregnant because they were only ‘together’ twice. I guess Hampshire didn’t read “Tess of the D’Urbervilles” very carefully to pick up how it only takes one time to get pregnant.

When Suzanne began her undergraduate studies, she did not declare a major. After that one year she applied to take English as her major but is denied. It is hinted she was denied because she was Black.

She gives birth to twins and there is no question she will keep them and raise them herself since Hampshire has no interest in being responsible. One day one of them is kidnapped and found drowned soon after. At first it’s not clear who could have done it. Suzanne suspects Robert Hampshire did it, but the authorities don’t look hard enough to prove it. The university protects Hampshire and expels Suzanne. And it goes from there.

Adrienne Kennedy is continuing with her theme of racism and class distinction as seen in He Brought Her Heart Back in a Box and Sleep Deprivation Chamber the other two plays I’ve seen in the series. (Etta and Ella on the Upper West Side begins streaming Dec. 12).

She establishes the systemic racism of that University. Suzanne did not find safety or sanctuary there. She was not allowed to continue as an English major because of a racist system that held Blacks back even if they were talented students like Suzanne. The university protected the white Professor. Suzanne had a champion in her aunt but they seemed alone in that world. Suzanne found the love of a good man but what she endured was astonishing.

Production and Comment. The production is presented as a partial reading and partially performed for a streaming platform and it’s stunning.  Lynda Gravátt plays Suzanne Alexander, the older, established writer who is narrating the story, with wonderful understatement. She is reading her script as if she is reading a paper for a lecture. She is tempered, measured and does not betray an anger or pent up emotion. Her younger self, is played by Billie Krishawn again as quiet, understated and attentive, certainly when she is in professor Hampshire’s lectures.

Hampshire is played quietly by Rex Daugherty. Daugherty deliberately does not imbue Hampshire with any enthusiasm when he is reading “Tess of the D’Urbervilles” in class. I thought an odd choice in this case. Perhaps it’s the conversations between Suzanne and Hampshire out of the classroom that that we don’t hear, that intrigued her and drew him to her. We can appreciate that her brains and analytical acumen drew her to him.

So we get the sense from Valerie Curtis-Newton’s direction that they were directed to be calm, controlled and not raging or angry in their delivery. In a way they have to come to the last line of the play that should be a wallop—as to why her work is so full of violent images. The quietness of this presentation emphasizes the violence done to Suzanne and it should leave you limp. Which it did to me.

With every play I see of Adrienne Kennedy I’m stunned and impresses anew. She’s a towering presence in the American theatre. And everybody should read her work not only go get a forceful look at racism through the ages in America but also to see a playwright at the top of her powers.

Ohio State Murders streams digitally until Feb., 2021.

For tickets please go to:

Leave a Comment

Respectful comments are accepted on this site as long as they are accompanied by a verifiable name and a verifiable e-mail address. Posts that are slanderous, libelous or personally derogatory will not be approved.