A closer look at Frida Kahlo and a little (more) night music come to KC stages

05/07/2014 12:00 AM

05/07/2014 7:38 PM

As the Living Room has solidified its reputation as a small theater company where anything can happen, theatergoers have come to expect old plays, new plays, weird plays and interesting plays — but never dull plays.

So we shouldn’t be surprised that the nonprofit downtown company is closing out its season with two back-to-back world premieres. In June, Kyle Hatley will direct and perform in a play he wrote, “Master of the Universe,” his adaptation of Georg Buchner’s “Woyzeck.”

But before we get to Hatley’s opus, we have

“Frida A Self Portrait,”

written by and starring actor/playwright Vanessa Severo. The show is Severo’s take on the life of Frida Kahlo, the Mexican painter whose recognition as a major artist came after her death in 1954. Also remembered as the wife of painter Diego Rivera, Kahlo had a succession of challenges. She suffered polio in childhood and in her teens survived a grisly bus accident that left her with permanent injuries and in more-or-less constant pain.

Salma Hayek produced and starred in a 2002 film about Kahlo, and although her work is well-known in the art world, to the general public she may be a recognizable name but little else.

“They know one painting or they know the movie,” Severo said. “People don’t know a lot about Frida Kahlo, and I want them to walk away knowing that she actually had a really tough life and rose above every situation using art.”

Originally the project was to be called “The Two Fridas,” a collaboration between Severo and Alex Espy. The focus was to be Kahlo’s childhood relationship with an imaginary friend, and it was to have been a movement-based performance. But then Espy had to withdraw. And there was no script. After briefly considering walking away, Severo decided to plunge ahead with the Living Room’s support.

A few years ago Severo wrote and directed “Advice From a Spider” for KC Fringe. It was charming, whimsical and dark — a sort of children’s show for adults. That and “Frida” are her two finished plays, although she said she has plenty of other projects bubbling on her computer.

For “Frida” she read reams of source material in English and Spanish, including Kahlo’s journals. (Severo, as you might have guessed, is fluent in Spanish).

“For years I read about her,” Severo said. “I know her inside out. I know every detail about that woman.”

After digesting all that source material, Severo said that when she began writing, the script came pouring out.

“I had it out in five days,” she said.

Severo chose to structure the piece around five major or traumatic events in Kahlo’s life: polio, the bus accident, her marriage to Rivera, her divorce and, at the end of her life, the amputation of a leg and addiction to morphine. Actress Heidi Van, one of her collaborators from “Advice From a Spider,” will read the words of Kahlo’s mother in Spanish and create paintings onstage during each performance.

Severo asked her friend, fellow actress Katie Kalahurka, to direct the piece. Kalahurka said she saw her job as offering guidance in the form of suggestions and basically staying out of Severo’s way.

“I think as opposed to this piece being about facts about her life, in its essence it’s about art and truth,” Kalahurka said. “To me it’s the Frida Kahlo version of those grander themes. When I’m watching this piece I’m relating a lot of it to my own life. I want (viewers) to connect with Frida the way they would with one of their best friends.”

Rusty Sneary, the Living Room’s artistic director, said he and executive director Shawnna Journagan had no qualms about moving forward with the project because they had faith in Severo’s abilities. Audiences, he said, should be ready for a new experience.

“Don’t come in with expectations, and be prepared to leave with your mind blown,” he said

“Frida A Self Portrait” begins performances tonight at the

Living Room, 1818 McGee St., and runs through May 18. For more information, call 816-533-5857 or go to TheLivingRoomKC.com

.

Spinning Tree Theatre does Sondheim

Spinning Tree Theatre concludes its season with a production of

“A Little Night Music”

by composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim and book-writer Hugh Wheeler.

The show, based on the Ingmar Bergman film “Smiles of a Summer Night,” is perhaps best known for the song “Send in the Clowns.”

The Spinning Tree production is directed by Michael Grayman and choreographed by Andy Parkhurst. Heading the enormous cast is a virtual who’s-who of local musical-theater heavy hitters: Melinda MacDonald, Lauren Braton and Charles Fugate, Molly Denninghoff and Liz Golson. Also on hand are Vigthor Zophoniasson, Cathy Wood, Daniel Beeman and Allison Banks, among others.

Performances begin tonight and continue through May 24 at the

Off Center Theatre on the third level of Crown Center. Call 816-545-6000 or go to www.spinningtreetheatre .com.

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