Frida Kahlo: A Portrait
Reviewed by Keith Waits
Entire contents are copyright © 2012 Keith Waits. All rights reserved
Frida Kahlo: A Portrait is a work of dedication on the part of its creator, Carlos Chavarria. In his director’s notes Mr. Chavarria details the motivation to make his own statement about the famous Mexican artist after watching a film and a play about her life and feeling less than satisfied. After a period of research that included visits to Mexico and Friday Kahlo’s home, now a museum, he spent years shaping his script and planning this production.
The devotion to the subject is evident in the comprehensive docu-drama structure and fulsome biographical detail, as we follow Frida from childhood through a lifetime making art and enduring a tumultuous marriage to famed Mexican muralist Diego Rivera. Extensive narration is delivered by a chorus of six actors who also rotate through supporting roles as key people in Kahlo’s life, in scenes that develop characterization and give us the opportunity to hear the titular character express her emerging philosophy and radical worldview (Kahlo was a proud Communist).
The piece works best in these scenes, wherein the actors are allowed time and space to connect to the audience. But the abundance of narration spent cataloging incidents in Kahlo’s life is so exhaustive as to be, at times, exhausting, and distracting from the emotionally impactful moments. Too often the text seems to belabor the numerous extra-marital affairs that complicate the marriage to Rivera and, later, the seemingly endless series of health problems and arduous surgeries that plagued her later years.
As a director, Mr. Chavarria works hard to in overcome these problems. The blocking is alternately formal, often ritualistic, establishing a reverent tone that is broken up by instances of expressive and energetic choreography; most notably in a macabre yet highly entertaining number that opens up the second act. The colorful and evocative sets and costumes (some of the items were handmade by Mexican Indians) as well as an effective musical score that was smartly employed provide rich aural and visual textures that lend authenticity to the production. The visual motifs are dominated by Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) iconography and include a character named La Pelona, who represents death.
It is in this character that the play makes its boldest statement, as the spectral, skeletal figure is an almost constant presence, as portrayed here, the most significant relationship in Kahlo’s life. Embodied as a fully realized and controlling physical presence by Amanda Goebel, and featuring startling and beautifully executed make-up and costume, it is a potent inclusion of magic realism. The notion of mortality leading Frida through all of the pain and suffering, both physical and emotional, that followed her throughout her life is powerfully depicted.
In the title role, Victoria Reibel is called upon to express that agony in no uncertain terms, perhaps more often than is necessary; but the young actress throws herself headlong into the role with unparalleled energy and commitment. Despite an overbearing make-up design that threatens to make the trademark prominent eyebrows too much the focus (perhaps an always controversial element in any dramatic portrayal of the artist), Ms. Reibel builds a solid and consistent characterization that breaks away from the common perception of Kahlo as more emotionally reserved and delivers a performance that, while at times over-emphatic, remains grounded enough to make its go-for-broke attack seem a triumph.
If the writing overreaches, it seems to be from zeal to be comprehensive in covering the life of its subject in fullest detail. Yet the conception is fresh and exciting and the execution polished enough to reveal a powerful and confident heart at the center. For fans of Kahlo, the show offers welcome immersion in her story. Anyone unfamiliar with her will encounter an engaging introduction couched in specific and vividly rendered cultural context.