Play Depicts Art as Life Source for Mexican Legend Frida Kahlo


dir. Hilary Blecher

at the American Repertory Theatre

Through September 27

Frida, currently in performance at the American Repertory Theatre, brings new meaning to the terms multimedia production. Frida is part film, part puppet show, part opera, part play; in totem it is consummately absorbing, wholly engaging.


Often Kahlo (Helen Schneider) is painted as a cardboard caricature in order to better serve narrow agendas: agonizingly disabled, Mexican, communist, bisexual, a woman oppressed by a famous painter husband. Frida expertly avoids exploiting the politically correct factors that have posthumously made Frida Kahlo a pop culture celebrity.

The production does not tear down Diego Rivera (William Rhodes) to prop up Frida Kahlo, nor does it make oppression center stage. In life, Kahlo was above that, and this production of her life also rises above simplistic analyses.

The jury is still out on whether Diego Rivera stifled Kahlo's work--often it seems like it was Frida herself who took her work the least seriously, who treated it the most frivolously.

It is only in her famed later years, alone and in pain, that she says of her painting. "That's how I keep from dying." Art is part of daily life, nourishing and sustaining, not a special feat or a museum stunt.

It is Diego who makes the grand statements, the grand gestures: "Art is for the common man," he declares. His vision for it is neither pretty nor sexy. "You wouldn't fuck a pyramid, but that doesn't mean it's not art," he bellows.

Frida, by contrast, is less intense about her work, more intense about the world and living in the world. Anguished by the poverty and desolation she sees in Mexico, she cries, "Heaven should be for those who go through hell on Earth." In her own life she enumerates that which is worth living for: "Love, sex, cigarettes--and tequila." She speaks of her own obstacles with humor and wit. "I Prefer to suffer the Catholic way--publicly."

Helen Schneider's Frida is stunning and exhibits amazing range: tempestuously angry, hurt and betrayed, laughing and cavorting, she lays claim to the stage, the spotlight, the audience. Even when the stage is crowded with shadow puppets, or wounded deer, or an assortment of Rockefellers and Fords, it is Schneider who is magnetic and maintains a mythic aura.

William Rhodes is unexciting but certainly decent as Diego Rivera. Accidental or not, he seems almost "White American," like the northerners he's so enamored of. "The offstage operatic duets sung by Karen Hale and Alba Quezada are stirring, although occasionally difficult to understand because of the melding of Spanish and English tones. Costume designers Ann Roth and Robert de Mora have created beautifully evocative costumes: magnificent Mexican native dress for Frida, Spanish scarves and shawls for village women and pastel pinks for the stodgy American wives.

Frida, produced by the American Music Theater Festival, Houston Grand Opera and Women's Project & Productions, has a promising future ahead of its. Following its Cambridge debut, it is scheduled for a number of other American cities as well as the opening event of the Brooklyn's Academy of Music's Next Wave Festival.

"The one who gives birth to herself" has finally had a rebirth worthy of her praise.