- Frida Kahlo, the Passion
By Ricardo Halac
Directed by Mario Marcel
Produced by Teatro de La Luna
Reviewed by Rosalind Lacy
Reproductions of some of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo’s most famous paintings dangle from the ceiling in the lobby of the Gunston Arts Center. Her self-portraits are memorable-the unplucked eyebrows that meet in a unibrow over piercing eyes of frozen fire. Some of these icons remind us of the way Kahlo depicted herself as an allegorical Madonna or a fertility goddess of Aztec heritage who gave birth to dead fetuses that floated from her blood-splotched body like an unspoken prologue. Were those eyes expressing pain or masking it? Or simply saying, I am what I am. Now Teatro de la Luna pays tribute to the liberated woman behind the mask of the great 20th century surrealist in the U.S. premiere of Frida Kahlo, The Passion, by Argentinean playwright Ricardo Halac.
Stage direction by Mario Marcel could be photographic stills of Frida Kahlo (Anabel Marcano), that slowly come to life. The Theatre Two stage is stripped to the wall to recreate a sense of the studio space where Frida and her husband, Diego Rivera (Peter Pereyra), the great love of her life, works from a platform on a large, unfinished canvas. Kahlo either paints at a smaller easel or takes to her bed, oddly isolated center stage. Immediately we sense the distance between the two and their loneliness in a troubled relationship. At other points throughout, the actors stare in different directions in visually effective tableaus.
The play is loosely structured, moving backward and forward in time. Through flashbacks, Anabel Marcano, as Frida Kahlo, tells us of her childhood. Frida, named for her German father, survived polio at age six. The sound of screeching brakes take us back to her tragic accident at age 18. The bus in which she was riding was struck by a streetcar; and Kahlo sustained a broken spinal column, multiple fractures, a crushed foot and a spiking through her uterus by a handrail. Although she recovered enough walking ability to limp, her injuries left her unable to bear the children she longed for. Moreover, even though she underwent some 35 operations, she was plagued by spasms of physical pain for the rest of her life. No wonder Frida Kahlo, the Passion, the play’s title, takes on the double meaning of the suffering of Christ.
During her bedridden convalescence, Kahlo started painting and met the muralist-with-a-political-agenda, Diego Rivera, twenty years her senior. (He was 42; she was 22.) Rivera became her life on earth; art was her spiritual passion. The miracle is that Kahlo was able to surpass her teacher/lover/husband and paint with an unprecedented talent that went beyond what the art world had seen before.
Anabel Marcano plays the emerging surrealist as one who stoically endures but never wallows in her pain, right up to her last encounter with Calavera/Death, pantomimed by Cynthia Ortiz-Urrunaga. Whether cleaning her brushes, arranging flowers, or limping to her bed, Marcano’s Kahlo seems driven to create. She paints to escape; she paints to express. There’s no time for self-pity. She gets on with her life using her pain to fuel her artwork. Her conversations start quietly but escalate in intensity as her single-minded passion becomes clear. Squaring her shoulders like one of her posed icons, Marcano, the actress, looks like Kahlo staring out at us with an unwavering stare. A highly effective closing moment for Act I and other moments throughout the play.
Not only betrayed by her body, Kahlo’s also a wronged woman by Diego Rivera, her machismo, womanizing husband. A backdrop scrim, a white, see-through curtain, lets us see Frida’s hard-to-beat rival, a hardcore movie actress, Maria Felix, (Cynthia Urrunaga). This cynical character, Maria, represents Kahlo’s sister (Cristina in real life) and Diego’s other mistresses, who torment Kahlo with jealousy. The play hints at her getting even with affairs, even bisexual ones, or ones with political celebrities, such as Leon Trotsky. Both artists, even when married were unfaithful to each other. The play offers no answers as to the mystery of why Kahlo stayed loyal to Rivera.
Kahlo and Rivera shared the revolutionary ideals that started with Zapata’s peasants in the early 1900s. But the period of their bohemian radicalism is sketchy, except that Pereya as Diego Rivera mentions he paints “Zapata’s peasants,” as romantic ideals, to raise money for Frida’s operations. Although we don’t get to see their famous Depression era visit to the United States enacted, Kahlo, an idealistic Communist, talks about her hopes for the rise of the people against the overlord, landowning class during that time. This is not a play with a political agenda. But Marcel’s casting of Peter Pereyra, who on the surface seems physically miscast, reinforces playwright Halac’s impressionistic intent: to capture the tender, gentle moments in the Rivera/Kahlo relationship, their aesthetic bond.
Finally, the great joke on Rivera’s role as a heartless womanizer and Frida’s torturer is that it is Frida’s individualism that surpassed his art. At one point in the play, Rivera stares into space and predicts what will happen in the future. “She is the great artist. I merely mix her colors.”
Perhaps the most ironic line in the entire play is the following: “No one is going to ask me to come back,” Frida says. This line echoes the entry she made to her diary a few days before her death: “I hope the exit is joyful-and I hope never to return-Frida.”
But now in the form of international retrospective shows such as the record-breaking one in Mexico City in 2007, Frida Kahlo is the worshipped one who keeps coming back.
Running Time: 1:45 with 15 minute intermission
When: Frida Kahlo, the Passion in Spanish, with English surtitles, continues through Saturday, March 1, 2008. Thursdays, 8 p.m and Saturday matinees 3 p.m.; Fridays and Saturdays, 8 p.m.
Where: Gunston Arts Center, Theatre Two, 2700 S. Lang St., Arlington, VA 22206
Tickets: $25 regular; students/seniors over 60, $20 (Thurs. and Sat. matinee 3 p.m.)
$30 regular; students/seniors over 60 $25 (Fridays and Saturdays 8 p.m.)
Info: 703-548-3092 or visit the website.