Any art lover will ask the questions eventually. Who was Simonetta Vespucci, the young woman who reputedly inspired Botticelli's Birth of Venus? Or Dora Maar, the model for Picasso's Weeping Woman? Or Joanna Hiffernan, Whistler's White Girl? A great artist's muse can be just as intriguing as the artist – and even, as in the case of Maar, an artist as well.
So it is with Bella Rosenfeld, the first wife and inspiration for Russian-Jewish painter Marc Chagall. Bella Chagall was a creative force in her own right: an actress, journalist and Yiddish author who penned two books, translated as The Burning Lights and First Encounter. Both were published posthumously, Bella having died suddenly in 1944, at the age of 48, from a viral infection.
Her writing forms the basis for Bella: The Colour of Love, a one-woman play by Mary Kerr and Theresa Tova, performed by Tova. The show, presented by the Harold Green Jewish Theatre Company at the Toronto Centre for the Arts in North York, is a musical and visual biography that entwines Bella's lyrical prose and Marc's fantastical paintings the same way the two were entwined in life. It's an imaginative but not entirely satisfying attempt to bring substance to that ethereal black-haired beauty floating through so many of Chagall's paintings.
Tall, dark Tova, dressed to match the painting Bella with White Collar and fluttering a red fan, brings Bella to life. She leads us on a tumultuous journey that begins in late 19th-century Russia, in the couple's hometown of Vitebsk, and passes through the Russian Revolution, Paris in the 1920s and the Nazi invasion of Europe.
Young Bella is the only daughter of a wealthy jeweller, while Marc (or Moishe, as he was then known) is a fishmonger's son. But when they meet, it's love at first sight. Both being independent-minded, he takes off to paint in Paris, while she studies acting with Stanislavski in Moscow. They reunite at the onset of the First World War, marry and produce a daughter, Ida. But as the new Soviet state takes shape, the Chagall family faces artistic restrictions and the threat of starvation. The show's second act follows them to exile in Paris and, when the Nazis arrive, to a second exile in the United States.
Throughout, Bella serves as Marc's muse, playing the role of "the girl in the canvas," as one of the show's songs puts it. She also deals with the day-to-day necessities and protects her husband, the "holy fool." As she puts it in another, circus-themed song, he is the trapeze artist, she is the net.
Bella's narrative is propelled by a series of such songs, most of them written by Tova and Kerr, with music by jazz composer and pianist Matt Herskowitz. He accompanies Tova onstage, at a piano strewn with bouquets of flowers – a recurring motif in Chagall's art. Legendary Danny Grossman has directed and choreographed the work, so there's also a dance element. He gives Tova's Bella stylized movements that often mimic the dreamily sinuous lines of Chagall's paintbrush.
Kerr also designed the production, selecting 40 Chagall paintings that are projected as an ever-changing backdrop. The artist's colourful acrobats, fiddlers, flying couples and giant chickens are a whimsical feast for the eye, but Herskowitz's period-appropriate mix of stormy romanticism and cabaret jazz grows tedious after a while.
Tova, best known for writing and starring in Still the Night, her moving 1990s Holocaust musical, sings in English and Yiddish and acts up a storm. But she often adopts histrionics at the expense of real feeling. She is very good at amusing caricatures and tongue-twisting lyrics (such as those of Paris, My New Home, a flurry of art-celebrity name dropping). But she is not as effective at portraying Bella's changing emotions.
Early in the play, Bella in Moscow writes to Marc in Paris, noting: "An artist must love his subjects. Think of Botticelli." There would be plenty of love in Chagall's paintings, especially for Bella, who continued to inspire him until his death in 1985, aged 97. There is no doubt Kerr and Tova also feel a strong affection for Bella, but it fails to cross the footlights and touch our hearts.