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.

Of course relying on Kahlo's words casts this theatrical self-portrait in a flattering light. One juicy bit that's overlooked is her two-day detainment by police for questioning about her possible involvement in the assassination of her ex-lover Leon Trotsky, the exiled Russian revolutionary. Likewise the stormy battles that erupted as a result of Kahlo and Rivera's open marriage are barely touched upon: His philandering is vaguely mentioned, while her dalliances are dealt with in an impressionistic dance in which the older Kahlo watches her younger self dance with a man, then change to partner with a woman in a dance that leaves the two women embracing and hidden beneath a large fuschia sheet.

While Sendler's play keeps Kahlo as its main focus, the artist's diary entries make it clear that she thought her life centered on Rivera. In a stream of confessional rhapsodies, the older Kahlo exalts, "Diego my lover/Diego my father/Diego my child/Diego me/Diego the universe," before gushing with abandon that she feels "like a bud next to the many branches of the tree that is Diego." And while at times Sendler's dialogue seems to be an excessively romantic approximation of the artistic temperament, there is no denying it speaks with the same voice of the woman who once wrote to her husband, "Your fruits shed their aromas, your flowers shed their colors deepening with the joys of winds and blossoms. Diego's name is the name of love. Don't let the tree that loved you so much, that treasured your seed and crystallized your life at six in the morning, be thirsty."

Although the flowery language undermines crisp dramatic plotting, it allows us to listen as a brilliant woman discuss her passions. In one instance the older Kahlo quotes from her diary to explain her palette and show us new ways to see color: "Green: a good warm light. Greenish yellow: more madness and mystery. All phantoms wear suits of this color... or at least underwear. Leaf green: leaves, sadness, science. All of Germany is this color."

Judging from the misfortunes depicted in Goodbye, My Friduchita, the color that best describes Kahlo would be blue. While M. Todd Williams' lighting and Steve Shapiro's sound design efficiently denote time and place, Kahlo leads us through her various miscarriages, abortions, hospitalizations, and suicide attempts. The play's second half, like Kahlo's later works, dwells on the operations that left her in so much pain that she became addicted to drugs and alcohol. Despite Delgado's graphic portrayal of the artist's physical suffering, the actress never obscures the formidable will of the woman who, after having her right leg amputated in 1953, drew a foot in her diary and entitled the etching Feet, what do I need them for if I have wings to fly.

Because of her renown, Kahlo attracted photojournalists and fellow artists keen on depicting her. Delgado's performance gives the eerie impression of some of those photographs come to life in the authentic way she carries herself, holds a cigarette, and confronts the audience in a combination of impudent earthiness and saintly stature. As the mischievous young Kahlo determined to salvage her life even to the point of defying social convention, Miranda presents a winning portrayal of enthusiasm and resilience.

Together Delgado and Miranda provide a moving representation of Kahlo's life. This is filtered through Barbara Lowery's sensual direction and choreographer Damaris Ferrer's dreamscape movements, which produce the dramatic equivalent of Kahlo's surrealist musings. Through the use of projected slides, Lowery relates Kahlo's paintings to the play's action; the most vivid instance of this occurs when the announcer explains the symbolic images found in the artist's Henry Ford Hospital, 1932 -- it depicts a miscarriage -- while the actors stage a tableau of the work.

Lowery also presents a breathtaking image of Kahlo's botched suicide attempt: While the older Kahlo dispassionately recounts the incident, her younger self is engulfed in a white, canvaslike cloth held by the two students, from which she struggles to break free, with only the outline of her face or one arm visible through the taut fabric. Despite the lush imagery, Lowery's staging never sacrifices clarity, as the director skillfully delineates between the two Kahlos and keeps the story moving along in a logical manner, even when the chronology jumps back and forth.  

Following Kahlo's death (attributed to a pulmonary embolism, although she is suspected of committing suicide), the ashes of one of history's most prolific self-portrait painters were placed in a pre-Columbian jar shaped like a headless woman. The Coconut Grove Playhouse's intriguing production of Sendler's play gives Kahlo back her voice and puts a remarkably human face on an extraordinary woman.

Goodbye, My Friduchita.
Written by Dolores Sendler. Directed by Barbara Lowery. Starring Judith Delgado, Delma Miranda, and Stephen G. Anthony. Through Jan 18. Coconut Grove Playhouse, 3500 Main Hwy., Miami, 305-442-4000.

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