Painter on the spot

Mar 29, 2000 at 12:00 am

Fantastical works of art, magic and puppets highlight Chagall’s Arabian Nights. The play, currently getting its world premiere at Meadow Brook Theatre, also focuses on renowned artist Marc Chagall’s struggle with creative blockage, the death of his wife Bella, and his attempts to garner universal appeal.

In opposition to his critics, Chagall repeatedly denied being a "Jewish painter," describing himself instead as a painter and a Jew. Sidney Alexander, one of his many biographers, describes Chagall as being "sincere in his intentions to provide universal symbols" and not just what some dubbed "Jewish" ones. Because of Chagall’s determination to address all segments of the world in his paintings and personal philosophy, he was accused of the sin of assimilation and therefore was alienated from those in the Zionist movement.

During a particularly trying time, he moved to the Catskills with his new companion, a much younger woman named Virginia, and began illustrating the Arabian Nights. This successful endeavor is depicted in the production as being cathartic for Chagall, who was searching for answers in his relationship with Virginia, as well as a means to make a statement concerning art’s ability to transcend ethnic and political lines.

Thanks to director Debra L. Wicks, the play creatively combines these mature issues that have an understandable appeal to adults with one of the tales from the Arabian Nights that attracts children of all ages because of its message of love and adventure, and the way it’s presented. While Virginia is reading the story to Chagall in hopes of inspiring him, the stage becomes his canvas.

Actors Sunita Param and Robert Morgan play the mythical couple falling in love while on an adventure to get back to their homeland. Along the way, they encounter creatures of intrigue and kindness that come in the forms of huge, colorful puppets and sometimes smaller creations, or just voices in the background.

The Chagall aspect of the production is interesting, with a formidable performance by Robert Grossman as the artist, and the sweet, sensitive support of Nedra Gallegos in the role of Virginia. Although one could not help but appreciate the colorful puppet creations by designer Kathryn Wagner, the adult in me wanted to see the dramatic conflict in Chagall’s life explored more extensively. Because of this, calling Chagall’s Arabian Nights a pure drama would be inaccurate.

Just as the Disneyish Arabian Nights tale in the play has limited appeal to the adults in the audience, the portrayal of Chagall’s difficulties probably is not understood by the younger set. Of course, such a combination of aesthetics and appeal can be found in every Disney animated feature of the last 10 years – something which translates into a good "family night out."

Chagall’s Arabian Nights was written by award-winning playwright Karim Alrawi in cooperation with the Arab Theatrical Arts Guild of Dearborn. Alrawi has had several of his productions staged in England while he was the playwright-in-residence for the Royal Court Theatre and is nationally recognized for his 1999 work, A Gift of Glory.

Although Chagall’s Arabian Nights will not quench a thirst for a deep dramatic experience, it will have notable appeal to those looking for imaginative, light entertainment the entire family can appreciate.

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