Woman on the Verge

Her boyfriend recalled seeing her drenched in blood and coated with gold dust. The boyfriend, Alejandro Gomez Arias, and his eighteen-year-old companion Frida Kahlo were returning to their homes in suburban Mexico City that September day in 1925 when the city bus on which they were riding collided with a streetcar. In an instant packages and a bus rider's bag of gold dust went flying through the air as an iron handrail broke free from the bus and pierced Kahlo's left hip, fracturing her vertebrae and pelvis before exiting through her vagina.

Recalling the accident later in life, Kahlo wisecracked, "I lost my virginity [that day]." But her joke hid two larger truths: Following the crash she lived in constant pain -- through the years she underwent more than 30 operations to repair the damage she sustained -- and the event's repercussions forged her carefree schoolgirl fancies into an artist's unflinching introspection. After the accident Kahlo began to paint her first self-portrait; as she was often immobilized, she used an easel constructed to fit over her bed. Between 1926 and her death in 1954, the Mexican surrealist painter created 55 stylized reflections of herself, accounting for more than one-third of her 143 known works. "I paint self-portraits because I am so often alone," she once explained. "Because I am the person I know best."

Certainly she is an arresting subject with her thick, black hair; heavy eyebrows; discernible mustache; and black, probing eyes that challenge the viewer. In one work, Self-Portrait With Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird, Kahlo looks like a descendant of the Aztecs; she beckons from her place in front of a jumble of giant leaves, a monkey peeking over her shoulder and a hummingbird suspended from an interwoven branch necklace that rips into her flesh. In another, The Little Deer, Kahlo wears antlers, her head peering out from its perch atop the body of a fallen deer that has been riddled by hunters' arrows. Yet whatever the pose, Kahlo remains the girl covered in blood and sparkling gold dust, each picture blending her visceral subjectiveness with lyrical imagery.

The fascinating artist is once again on display, this time on-stage in Goodbye, My Friduchita, a hypnotizing production at the Coconut Grove Playhouse that is every bit as imaginative and arresting as the woman herself. For the first time that I can recall, the stage of the Playhouse's intimate Encore Room appears spacious, owing in large part to Stephen M. Lambert's suggested Mexican setting. Reminiscent of Kahlo's jarring juxtapositions of fantasy and reality, the artist's world of beds, books, and clothes spills out from beneath a pseudoproscenium that resembles a bursting picture frame straining to contain tattered bits of canvas painted with clouds. Yet the most striking scenic element, at least at the beginning of the play, is the center-stage open casket draped with a flag bearing a hammer and sickle, placed there by one of Kahlo's disciples, whom she taught at the progressive School of Painting and Sculpture in the final decade of her life.

Standing to one side, observing herself even in death, is Kahlo (Judith Delgado), who ribaldly makes sport of the event while dragging on a cigarette and pouring herself some tequila. Prompted by the circumstances into recounting her life, Kahlo's memories conjure a younger version of herself (Delma Miranda). Excitedly switching between English and Spanish, the two Kahlos tumble over each other describing the inception of Kahlo's imaginary childhood friend, the blush of first love, the harrowing bus catastrophe, and one other pivotal experience: "I suffered two grave accidents in my life," remembers the older Kahlo. "One in which a streetcar knocked me down... the other is Diego."

While the older and wiser Kahlo marvels at the cojones it took even to approach the acclaimed Mexican muralist Diego Rivera, her giddy alter ego triumphantly reveals how she caught his attention. (An avowed communist, Rivera is perhaps best known in the United States for his unfinished fresco Man at the Crossroads, which was removed from New York City's Rockefeller Center in 1933 and later destroyed because it featured a figure that looked suspiciously like Russian leader Vladimir Ilyich Lenin). Although history reports that Kahlo met Rivera through her own involvement in the Communist Party -- and I do mean party, because she fell for the famous painter eleven years her senior at a drunken gathering where Rivera shot a phonograph -- Goodbye, My Friduchita offers up one of Kahlo's own varying accounts of their initial encounter: She coaxes Rivera down from a ladder to view her paintings. Regardless of how they met, they were bonded forever, marrying in 1929, then divorcing ten years later, only to marry again in 1940 -- all despite his rampant womanizing and her many bisexual affairs.

Indeed, by eschewing historical accuracy in favor of using Kahlo's own words -- found in letters, published interviews, and diaries -- Goodbye, My Friduchita comes across like a privileged visit with Kahlo. A writer and director of more than twenty children's plays, playwright Dolores Sendler traveled to Mexico and interviewed several people who had actually visited with Kahlo: an ex-lover, a former student, and Rivera's long-time personal assistant. The resulting mixture of published history and personal recollections, which has enjoyed only one prior production -- in 1994 at Miami-Dade Community College -- conveys both the vaulting imagery of the artist's private thoughts and the likable accessibility of her gritty public persona. While an unseen announcer (Stephen G. Anthony) dispenses the necessary historical facts, Kahlo speaks for herself -- or herselves, because the two Kahlos have the play's only speaking roles. Two of Kahlo's students (Alejandro Bahia and Juana Escobar) silently facilitate costume changes and enact minor roles.

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