Frida Kahlo, the Passion

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Editorial Review

Rekindling Frida Kahlo, With Little Fuel
Teatro de la Luna's Idling 'Passion'

By Celia Wren
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, February 14, 2008

The volcanic emotional life of Mexican painter Frida Kahlo erupts with all the urgency of molasses in Teatro de la Luna's latest offering, "Frida Kahlo: La Pasion" ("Frida Kahlo: The Passion").

The play, by Argentine dramatist Ricardo Halac, lumbers dutifully back and forth along the arc of Kahlo's celebrated career, pondering her relationship with her none-too-faithful husband and fellow artist Diego Rivera, and recording her staggering tolerance for physical and psychological pain. It's a nuts-and-bolts chronicling that might strike American audiences as over-familiar, given the Kahlo cult of recent decades and pop-culture artifacts such as Julie Taymor's 2002 biopic, "Frida."

What is worse, director Mario Marcel's production moves at such a dawdling pace that watching it sometimes feels like watching paint dry. Heck, you are watching paint dry.

Marcel, also acting as set designer, has transformed the stage of the Gunston Arts Center's Theatre Two into a live-in painter's studio, full of canvases, brushes and paint canisters. A bed covered with a bright red Mexican textile stands near a cluttered table, and stretched out on each side wall are unfinished murals, depicting huge human shapes in Rivera's style. During the course of the show, an overalls-clad Diego (Peter Pereyra) adds a few seemingly real brushstrokes to these images.

The murals are not the only signs of the production's attention to visual detail. Costumers Rosita Becker and Nucky Walder and hair/makeup stylist Lorenzo Gonzalez have done a smashing job of giving Anabel Marcano the look of Kahlo's famous self-portraits. The actress gains those thick Kahlo eyebrows and lustrous braided-up hair, and she wears vivid folk-art colors that often recall specific artworks (a long green skirt mirrors an identical item in a 1931 Kahlo painting of herself and Rivera, for instance).

Designer Ayun Fedorcha's lighting primarily evokes the rich tones of Kahlo's paintings. During flashbacks and monologues, the illumination becomes harsher and bluer, and now and then -- adding a dreamlike quality -- it reveals a mysterious second studio space at the rear, behind a scrim.

Compared with these burnished stage pictures, the production's content seems wan. Halac devotes a significant portion of his focus to Kahlo and Rivera's relationship with the Mexican film star Mar¿a Felix (Cynthia Urrunaga), with whom Rivera had an off-again, on-again affair. The tense tete-a-tetes between the two women -- who are simultaneously attracted to and repelled by each other -- can be vaguely interesting, but too often the situation feels like a generic love triangle.

While Urrunaga swans around in furs as a larger-than-life diva, Marcano and Pereyra bring a little more subtlety to their roles. Flashing spirited looks and limping resolutely (Kahlo, of course, was in a gruesome bus accident when young), Marcano emphasizes Kahlo's steely willpower without downplaying her suffering, and Pereyra's Rivera is aptly charming and full of himself.

But aside from a snazzy coup de theatre at the end, the scenes unfurl so sluggishly, peppered with so many pauses, that it is hard to maintain interest. Characters take their time glaring at each other, and drinking, and talking about Trotsky (with whom Kahlo reportedly had an affair), then there's a flashback, followed by more of the same.

Andre Breton once favorably compared Kahlo's art to "a ribbon tied around a bomb." If only that trademark explosiveness had found its way to this production.