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Thursday, April 23, 2009

Last Night: Chagall and the Artists of the Russian Jewish Theater Preview

Posted By on Thu, Apr 23, 2009 at 3:22 PM

click to enlarge Natan Altman, Poster for Jewish Luck, 1925. - COLLECTION OF MERRILL C. BERMAN, NEW YORK
  • Collection of Merrill C. Berman, New York
  • Natan Altman, Poster for Jewish Luck, 1925.

Preview Night
Chagall and the Artists of the Russian Jewish Theater (1919-1949)
The Contemporary Jewish Museum
April 22, 2009

The new exhibit at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, Chagall and the Artists of the Russian Jewish Theater, opening today, is structured like a play: the birth, the prolific adulthood, then death from unnatural causes.

The exhibit chronicles a short, but intense period of history that influenced not only Russia and the Jewish diaspora, but theater all over the world.

The starting point is the flowering of the Russian Jewish theater in 1917. Why 1917? Because prior to that, the Jews were banned from cities and confined to small towns strewn across Ukraine, Belorussia, Poland and beyond. Think Fiddler on the Roof minus the Oscars and the nifty costumes. (And add the anti-Semitic writing of celebrated Russian novelists like Dostoyevsky and Gogol, to get a better picture.)

Finally, liberated by the Russian revolution, the two Jewish theaters flourished in Moscow, got government support and unleashed a creative torrent upon the Russians, who had mixed feelings about this whole thing to begin with.

The exhibit's photographs, prints, rare video footage and drawings tell the story of two theaters: the Hebrew-speaking Habima and the Yiddish-speaking GOSET. The first theater was taken under the wing of the method-acting founder Konstantin Stanislavsky and eventually moved to present-day Israel. The second theater, GOSET was eventually disintegrated, with key actors murdered under Stalin's regime.

Court of the Tzaddik (Scene from The Dybbuk). 1922, photograph. - FEDERAL STATE INSTITUTION OF CULTURE
  • Federal State Institution of Culture
  • Court of the Tzaddik (Scene from The Dybbuk). 1922, photograph.

One of the most impressive aspects of this exhibit is it chronicles the theaters' fusion of traditions. There's the Jewish mysticism and Biblical themes. There's the Russian folklore and Soviet propaganda. Shakespearean tragedies. French operettas. Plays about swinging. A title "Survival Skills 101" would be more appropriate, and recommended for those who gripe about their new cubicle or the daylight savings time.

Come check out this cool play in Hebrew at Lenin's State Jewish Theater, one poster says. You got to be a union member if you want to attend, though.

In another photo from 1922, a lead actress in a Jewish mysticism play has the classic look of her contemporary Hollywood sisters: dark, dramatic eyes, small pouty mouth, pale makeup.

Marc Chagall designed many costumes and lavish, vibrant stage sets - one of the exhibit's main draws. (Also on display is his other, non-theater work).

Marc Chagall, Introduction to the Jewish Theater, 1920, tempera, gouache, and opaque white on canvas. - STATE TRETYAKOV GALLERY, MOSCOW
  • State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow
  • Marc Chagall, Introduction to the Jewish Theater, 1920, tempera, gouache, and opaque white on canvas.

The opening night drew museum members - a crowd of about 750. Some heatedly discussed the theater. Others were not as informed, like a woman overheard drawling to her friend, "I didn't know Hitler was in jail. I guess that's when he wrote that book...Mein Ka-empf?"

The target audience is broad. Barbara Briggs, a former docent at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC, came to check out Chagall works.

Alexandra Belinski, an Israeli working with the Russian Jewish community in the Bay Area, attended for professional and personal reasons.

"It's not only a story about Russian Jews, but also a story about humanity," Belinski said. "One of the messages is for us to remember how important it is to keep democracy and freedom of speech and freedom of art alive."

Born in the former Soviet Union, Belinski, like millions of Americans, traces her heritage to the inspired, animated faces on these walls.

Marc Chagall, Music, 1920, tempera, gouache and opaque white on canvas. - THE STATE TRETYAKOV GALLERY, MOSCOW
  • The State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow
  • Marc Chagall, Music, 1920, tempera, gouache and opaque white on canvas.

There is an inherent sense of doom in the billboard credits, spelling the actors' explicitly Jewish names in Cyrillic letters. When Hitler and Stalin came into the picture, the only place to see this was in the documents designed to round people up and to pay tribute to them later.

But the show is not about the theater's and the Russian Jewish culture's demise. Instead, it's a tribute to all those who, despite the grim past and a very uncertain future, still wholeheartedly plunge into creating creating new and beautiful things.

Critic's Notebook

Personal Bias: None whatsoever, comrades.

Random Detail: When designing costumes for one of the plays (set in a graveyard), the costume designer went to Moscow's Institute of Forensic Medicine to study the bodies of drowned people and murder victims. Now that's attention to detail.

By the way: April 22, the preview day, also happens to be Lenin's birthday. Happy Birthday, Lenin.

Also see: This.
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Masha Rumer


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