An Actress, an Artist and a Mystical Quest: ‘Frida’ at KC Rep

Vanessa Severo has assigned herself a next-to-impossible task in the one-woman show, “Frida . . . A Self Portrait” — to tell a compressed version of the life of Mexican painter Frida Kahlo while weaving the actress/playwright’s own story into a kaleidoscopic narrative. 

Clocking in at about 75 minutes, the show whips along at such a rapid pace that it testifies to the actress’s formidable performance skills and smarts, not to mention her sheer physical endurance. The play is a roller coaster of primary emotions and shifts in time unpredictably, which now and then sacrifices clarity, despite director Joanie Schultz’s overall impressive command of logistics. The narrative spine includes Kahlo’ childhood polio and horrendous injuries suffered in a trolley accident; her on-again, off-again marriage to artist Diego Rivera, whose infidelities included an affair with her sister; and Severo’s own journey of discovery to understand her mystical connection to the artist. 

The show’s fluidity is made possible by a conceit Severo devised for her first performance of this piece in 2014 at the Living Room:  She strings an array of simple but flexible costumes from clothes lines that allow her to step in and out of characters, male and female, deftly. The seeming simplicity of that first outing remains, but now Severo has expanded the material to include, among other things, more information about Severo. This version digs deeper and altogether is a more complex undertaking.

This might be the time for me offer a caveat: After many years of sitting and watching professional theater, I’ve almost reached the limits of tolerance for anything that might be described as “metatheatrical.” That includes (a) shows that demolish the imaginary “fourth wall” separating audience from performers, (b) plays about writing plays and (c) dramatizations of an artist’s struggle to create a play about another artist’s creative struggle. 

But where many such efforts collapse in an impenetrable cloud of confused indulgences, Severo’s work demands our respect for one simple reason: Integrity. I never doubted for a moment the kinship the performer/writer feels with her subject, not did I question her obvious passion for the life of an artist who long ago seized the imaginations of art lovers. Today Kahlo is considered a proto-feminist because she accepted the enormous burdens life gave her and struggled through them with a singular force of will. She charted her own course, and couldn’t have cared less what anyone thought. 

And so it is with Severo: An actress with the sheen of a 1940s film star who pursues her own unique aesthetic with fierce independence.

The design team lends Severo’s play impressive assistance. Jacqueline Penrod’s scenic design frames the playing area with the contours of an enormous bed (a nod to the grim fact that Kahlo spent so much of her life bed-ridden). Katherine Davis’s costumes are effective and colorful. The lighting design by Rachael Cady helps the viewer keep track of shifts in chronology and mood. And sound designer/composer Thomas Dixon contributes often mesmerizing music. 

In one of the show’s meta moments, Severo explains to the audience that she is Brazilian, not Mexican. And Brazilians speak Portuguese, not Spanish. Yet, a Portuguese word Severo shares with the audience is a vital part of the show, one that in retrospect lends the piece much of its subtle dramatic power. The word is saudade, which has no direct English translation, but means (permit me to paraphrase) a longing for someone or something a person loves, but has been lost — possibly forever. Saudade is what motivates Frida to marry the philandering Rivera a second time. And, Severo implies, it explains the actress/playwright’s quest to capture something of the reality of Kahlo’s life, a quest that moved her to travel to Mexico to see the house where Kahlo lived and died.

As you may have gathered by now, the essence of Severo’s play isn’t easy to encapsulate. But that doesn’t mean the work is abstruse. It means Severo has attempted a level of sophisticated storytelling we seldom see from playwrights in Kansas City or anywhere else. 

“Frida . . . A Self Portrait” runs through May 19 at Copaken Stage, 11th and Walnut. Call 816-235-2700 or www.kcrep.org. 

About The Author: Robert Trussell

Robert Trussell is a veteran journalist who has covered news, arts and theater in Kansas City for almost four decades.

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