Vanessa Severo’s show on Frida Kahlo an impressive look at a hard life well-lived

05/10/2014 11:18 AM

05/12/2014 5:00 PM

Vanesso Severo, one of the best-known and respected actors in Kansas City, also happens to be a playwright of impressive talents.

She exhibits her customary skills as a performer and a memorable facility with words in her original one-act, “Frida … A Self Portrait,” a kaleidoscopic but intimate character study of the famed Mexican painter and feminist icon Frida Kahlo. Severo carefully selects key events in the artist’s life from the ages of 6 to 47 — early childhood to death — and finds a way to pack it all into an intense one-act performance piece that runs less than an hour.

Severo and director Katie Kalahurka transform the upstairs performing space at the Living Room into a spare but visually striking environment. A full-length mirror is placed at center stage below a delicate chandelier. Overlapping clothes lines are arranged upstage, hung with varied, colorful garments, some of which Severo incorporates as costume pieces.

At one side is a bed, positioned vertically, where so many of the major events of Kahlo’s life took place, from childhood polio to recovery from a horrendous bus accident to her death. At the opposite edge of the stage is a big artist’s tablet on an easel, where actress Heidi Van creates spontaneous artwork and lets us know where we are in the story by writing Frida’s age at the beginning of each episode. Van also wordlessly fills the role of Frida’s imaginary childhood friend and helps Severo create moments of pure physical theater.

As one ruminates on this short, never-take-a-breath show that seems to end almost as soon as it begins, it’s easy to reach a basic conclusion about Severo’s talent. She’s more than an actor and more than a playwright. She’s a conceptual theater artist who, rather like Kahlo, is not satisfied with the conventional. This show is a wild, unpredictable ride.

Severo and Kalahurka have assembled an amazing soundtrack that moves from traditional Mexican folk ballads and mariachi instrumentals to 1930s pop music and even includes hard rock. Certain sequences allow Severo to use her abilities as a lithe dancer while others are almost purely impressionistic, in which she attempts to tell the story without words.

That said, there are moments when the writing is as vivid as a Kahlo painting, particularly in an emotional monologue in which Kahlo reflects on her relationship with artist Diego Rivera and the very nature of love. It’s powerful stuff. Severo the actress is able to shift seamlessly between the various versions of Kahlo and, briefly, the gruff persona of Rivera.

By the curtain call, viewers are left with the humbling sensation of having witnessed a life well-lived. In Severo’s version, Kahlo never asks for pity and has no particular desire to be understood except, perhaps, as an artist. “I lived truthfully and in full color,” she says near the end.

Complaints? The performance moves so fast that some viewers will be challenged to take it all in. Severo’s script and performance are nuanced, but those nuances fly by. The play will leave some viewers wanting more. In its current form, “Frida” offers a tantalizing taste that whets the viewer’s appetite for an elaborate meal.

Whatever Severo’s plans for the show may be, she should consider building on what by any measure is a remarkable act of creativity.

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