DramaWatch: Discovering Frida

Vanessa Severo talks about "becoming" the famed Mexican artist; Martha Washington bakes again.

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A seemingly simple comment sent Vanessa Severo, the writer and star of Frida…a Self Portrait, on the years-long process of creating her multilayered, richly theatrical look at the famed Mexican painter Frida Kahlo. And yet, Severo admits, she’s still not sure what that comment meant. 

One day over coffee a theater friend, a puppeteer, told Severo he saw some Frida Kahlo in her.  But he didn’t elaborate. “He was very wry about it,” Severo says, speaking by phone recently amid preparations for her show’s season-opening run at Portland Center Stage. “I had to ask myself, ‘What did he mean? Do I look like her? Is there something else about me that’s like her?’ That made me want to find out more about her. And the more I read about her, I did start to feel like there was this string connected to her from my right ventricle.”

Vanessa Severo as Frida Kahlo in KCRep’s 2019 production of “Frida … A Self Portrait.” Photo: Corey Weaver/Courtesy of KCRep

Following that string has led Severo deep into the extravagantly colorful life and fiercely beating heart of Kahlo — best known either for the penetrating gaze and highly emotional symbolism of her self-portraits or for her famously tumultuous marriage(s) with the celebrated muralist Diego Rivera. But as she crafted a vision of Kahlo’s self-portraiture, Severo’s own canvas turned into something of a mirror.

Although she considers herself Brazilian, Severo was born in the United States. “My mother was very sneaky and went to visit a friend in Boston while she was eight months pregnant,” she says. Her early childhood was spent back and forth between Brazil and the U.S, before formative years from ages nine to 16 in Frankfurt, Germany. “Growing up in Germany gave me a lot of freedom in being myself and in learning about culture,” she recalls. “That’s where I fell in love with theater.”

She attended Missouri State University, initially for dance studies, but soon took on a double major to continue her involvement with theater, and went on to study at American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco. Since 2005 she’s lived in Kansas City, where she eventually had that fateful coffee klatch.

Severo’s early dive into Kahlo’s biography made her start thinking about its potential as a play. Though her only major stage-writing experience was with a dark-toned children’s play called Advice From a Spider, she says her “shitty first draft” of Frida “”came like a download — I wrote it in five days.” That draft was the basis of a 2014 production at the Living Room Theatre in Kansas City. It was just 46 minutes long, looking at a half-dozen “chapters” of Kahlo’s life. But though the production was enthusiastically received, Severo turned away suggestions to remount it. Instead she started applying for grants.

“I’d learned what I could about her from books,” she recalls. “I knew I needed to go to Mexico. I need to know what the air smelled like. I needed to know what her people thought of her.”

In early 2018, Severo won a grant. “I went straight to Mexico City and couldn’t wait to get to Casa Azul,” Kahlo’s family home in the suburb of Coyoacán, now the Museo Frida Kahlo.

“I got there and I was sorely disappointed.” For one thing, the thin, high-elevation air, the sharp temperature increase from Kansas City, and the notorious Mexico City air pollution all combined to make Severo feel terrible. More crucially, she didn’t find the detail, the texture, the atmosphere of a private life that she assumed would permeate the house where Kahlo had spent the majority of her years. “It wasn’t like a house anymore. It was a museum, and it was crowded and they just keep pushing you through.”

Vanessa Severo and wardrobe in the Frida Kahlo play  “Frida: A Self Portrait.” Photo: Owen Carey /
Courtesy of Portland Center Stage 

As she left, however, she told a ride-share driver that she was researching Kahlo, and after scoffing at Casa Azul, he took her to the former home of Dolores Olmedo, a philanthropist and friend to Kahlo and Rivera. Though Olmedo’s place also has been converted into a museum, “it was an entirely different experience,” Severo says, recalling the flocks of peacocks and the many hairless dogs that roam the property. “It was in that house that I did find Frida.

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“As I did really begin to find her, a funny thing happened, though — I realized that I couldn’t just talk about Frida; I had to talk about myself.”

In addition to all the compelling qualities of her paintings, Kahlo’s ever-growing place in the popular imagination is based on what other people see in her. She’s a kind of heroic figure to those who connect to any of many aspects of her life and character — androgyny, bisexuality, leftist activism, chronic illness and physical disability … 

Severo refers to a congenital disorder of her left hand as one of her points of connection. “When I was young, I went through life always looking for pockets to put my hands into,” she says, “because I knew I wouldn’t make friends if they saw my hand first. I started feeling like I had to tell the audience about myself. It’s frightening, but also healing.”

Pulling back the view a bit to take in herself as subject adds layers to the investigation, enlivening the universal with the particular. “It’s not just Frida in self-portrait,” Severo says. “It’s Vanessa in self-portrait, it’s everyone in self-portrait.”

Kahlo’s paintings have been described as a kind of exorcism of her many traumas — from the lingering effects of childhood polio and a debilitating bus accident during her teen years to the emotional damage from Rivera’s relentless philandering. Does Severo see theater as serving the same function, in her show in particular?

“I see it that way, but not just for me as a performer but also for the audience. That’s what we’ve been missing through this pandemic. We thought we could go away and do it through Zoom, in these little squares. But that’s not theater. “

The first few preview performances of Frida have been a potent reminder of what theater can be. “It’s been 19 months since I’ve been onstage and you forget about the energy exchange between performer and audience. It’s been wonderful, but it’s also like the walls were vibrating!”

Severo uses simple but resonant theatrical devices to help tell the story, such as using clothes on a line to allow her to step quickly into other characters in Kahlo’s life, including a capacious suit for the rotund Rivera. At times of especially heightened emotion, in much the way a musical would shift into song, Severo shifts into her “other vernacular” of movement, drawing on her early dance training and studies in Suzuki method (“It felt like boot camp”) and dell’arte clowning. 

Asked why she thinks Kahlo has such emotional appeal to so many, Severo says simply, “She was so authentic and so unafraid to be who she was. I think people have a feeling that you need to look at her because she wouldn’t lie.”
Perhaps she didn’t. But even great truths can remain ambiguous, can retain their mysterious charge. 

“I’m still always asking that question of what is it of Frida that can be seen in me,” Severo says when we circle back to the observation that started it all. “It’s always something different each time.”

Opening

Talk about your intriguing premise: George Washington, in his will, stipulated that his hundreds of slaves were to be granted their freedom, but not upon his death; rather, upon the death of his wife, Martha. So, as the playwright Don Wilson Glenn takes up the idea, “part of my grandma’s folklore, a traditional tale that was circulated through the slave community over the years, was that of Martha Washington, that she lived her last days in fear that the slaves would uprise and take her life.”

Victoria Alvarez Chacon (left) and Melanie Moseley in “Martha Bakes.” Photo: Shawnte Sims

What’s especially interesting about Martha Bakes, Glenn’s play that Damaris Webb is directing for Vanport Mosaic, is how it approaches the personal and social ramifications of such a scenario and how it imagines Martha’s response. “This play starts with (an) imagined uprising at Mount Vernon,” Webb told ArtsWatcher Bobby Bermea early this year when a section of the work was presented in the Fertile Ground festival. “Martha has socially distanced herself into the colonial kitchen and she’s sent for help, but while she’s waiting for help to come she calms herself by giving us a cooking show.”

Think of it as cooking up a rich historical biography coated in sweet-cream satire.

That Fertile Ground showing of the play’s first act leaned heavily on the esteemed stage vet Adrienne Flagg in the role of Martha, but several weeks ago she withdrew from the project — her continuation another casualty of the pandemic, the sort we’re likely to keep encountering.

“I love Martha and I feel so honored to have been a part of the development process and the initial reading,” Flagg says. “I was so looking forward to seeing it through and expected to feel ready to be in a theater again. But as we got closer and more folks I know had breakthrough cases of Covid, I found I couldn’t feel focused and comfortable being unmasked in a closed room with an audience night after night.”

She stresses that she feels good about the precautions Vanport Mosaic is taking and expects to come see the show herself. She even recommended her own replacement: Melanie Moseley. This weekend’s brief run at CoHo Theater expands the story to include one of the Washingtons’ slaves, Ona Marie Judge (played by Victoria Alvarez Chacon), who has returned to Mount Vernon to learn whether her family’s emancipation is included in the will.

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It’s October, a month which increasingly is becoming little more than an extended run-up to Halloween. So although the website for Hillsboro’s Bag&Baggage Productions is playing coy with any details about its new show Bluebeard, we might reasonably expect the suspenseful  and scary. Co-creators/directors Kailey Rhodes and Samson Syharath use the French folktale of a serial monogamist/murderer as the basis for an hourlong interactive outdoor performance “beginning seated in your car and leading to an invitation to explore an open-ended environment.” Rhodes and Syharath are engaging young performers, and the show’s cast of eight also includes Claire Rigsby, Tyler Andrew Jones and others.

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Although DramaWatch focuses primarily on theater in the Portland area, attractive opportunities to visit other parts of our great state are welcome. In fact, a production of The Weir, by the terrific Irish playwright Conor McPherson (who has given us such darkly glinting gems as Shining City, This Lime Tree Bower and The Seafarer), looked to be just such an opportunity when it was staged at the Ten Fifteen Theater in Astoria. Ah, but that was in (you guessed it) March of 2020. The run that was cut short as soon as it started, and is at last due to resume. Let’s not tarry this time.

The Flattened Stage

To help inspire your trip to the north coast in the near future — that is, Astoria, for the aforementioned Ten Fifteen Theatre production — here’s a virtual trip in the other direction, a decade in the past at South Coast Rep in Southern California.

Bring out your dead!

For decades, Milagro has remained dedicated to multifaceted celebrations of Dia de Muertos, the Mexican holiday that mixes some of the dark imagery and playful spirit of Halloween, the Catholic reverence and ancestor worship of All Saints Day, and variations of pre-Columbian rituals  into a colorful and fun-loving autumn festival. Covid-19 was something of a death knell for Milagro’s tradition of creating a new devised theater production each year, but the celebration lives on. This year’s festival opens this Friday with a concert of pan-American folk-jazz by Gerardo Calderón, musical director of Grupo Condor and a frequent sound designer for Milagro shows, with guest artist Gisela Rodriguez. Continuing through Nov. 6, Milagro’s festival also will include concerts by guitarist and songwriter Joaquin Lopez, Sherman Floyd’s  “Son Afro-Mestizo” group Son Huitzilín, a virtual showcase of Latinx poets and — most intriguing for theater fans — a one-night showing (on Oct. 23) of a documentary recalling 25 years of the company’s Dia de Muertos programming.  

Best line I read this week

“There are times when one’s just got to go on loving somebody helplessly, with blank hope and blank faith. When love just is hope and faith in their most denuded form. Then love becomes almost impersonal and loses all its attractiveness and its ability to console. But it is just then that it may exert its greatest power. It is just then that it may really be able to redeem. Love has its own cunning beyond our conscious wiles.”

— from A Fairly Honourable Defeat by Iris Murdoch

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That’s all I have for now. I’ll try to do better the next time.

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