Review: Center Stage’s fine fit of Fridamania

Vanessa Severo's virtuoso turn onstage joins a rush of Kahlo from the opera to a coming museum show.

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In Portland’s tsunami of Fridamania, Frida … A Self Portrait is on a path to stirring up waves. 

In June, Portland Opera staged Frida, a 95-minute production to sold-out audiences at the Jordan Schnitzer open-air stage. The Portland Art Museum’s exhibit Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, and Mexican Modernism will run Feb. 19-June 5 next year.

Could there be yet another worthy Frida event without saturation setting in? Looks like it.

This Frida, opening the 2021-22 season at Portland Center Stage at the Armory, is holding its own. Like the brave brash bisexual Frida Kahlo known as much these days for her penetrating, sometimes psychologically bizarre self-portraits as for her marriage(s) to Mexican painter Diego Rivera, the piece is unapologetic, strange and beautiful —words that describe both the human Frida, who died in 1954 at 47, and Frida: A Self-Portrait.

Vanessa Severo in “Frida … A Self Portrait.” Photo: Owen Carey/Courtesy of Portland Center Stage

The one-woman show— created, written and acted by the inexhaustible Vanessa Severo —plays through Nov. 7  for more than two dozen shows.

The show lasts 75 minutes, but still, what stamina. Severo is the only person on stage playing numerous characters by slipping on a clothesline of outfits, pivoting into various timbres and accents (some hard to understand), and gracefully moving in and out of a multitude of postures (her dancing background is apparent). Severo’s energy is indomitable, the clothesline is the only scenery, and the audience on Oct. 16 remained rapt throughout her many layered performance.

A bit of background: Severo, a Brazilian woman born in the United States who lived an international life, dove into Frida Kahlo’s life when a puppeteer told her he saw Frida in her.  (See Marty Hughley’s OAW interview.) The cheekbones, the strong jaw, the posture, the presence? Maybe. But she took the connection further than the physical resemblance and found that she and Kahlo were attached in many places. Both had physical disabilities. Kahlo suffered from polio and underwent 30 operations after a bus accident crippled her. Severo was born with a fingerless hand that a surgeon planned to replace with her toes. Severo said no, she wanted her toes to dance with. Kahlo said no with her art, her wit and her will: she would not become invisible.   

Amid a clothesline of quick-change outfits, Vanessa Severo plays aspects of both Kahlo and herself. Photo: Owen Carey / Courtesy of Portland Center Stage

In this minimalist piece — though the acting is anything but restrained — you don’t learn much about Kahlo’s visual art, other than mention of her 143 self-portraits done in two years ( “I painted the subject I knew the best — myself”) and how a blue-paint chip from her lifelong Mexican home, Casa Azul, inspired her to paint. But you learn a lot about her angst, her suffering, her traumas, her loneliness, her struggles, her physical pain, her ability to love and to forgive, to hate and to envy. (Her sister sleeps with Rivera, and Rivera’s  infidelities plague her adult life, though Frida is no saint.)

As a bonus, you learn about Severo as a kind of mirror image to Kahlo in this story. It’s not an exact reflection, but more an understanding of Kahlo’s strength and “strangeness” that  prompts Severo to dig deeper and look at herself as a Latina woman facing her own insecurities. There is a wonderful scene where Severo describes her mother’s rage at her father. Her mother is washing the dishes: wash, rinse, dry and then … smash. Over and over. That was how a woman remained in control of herself and of her life, Severo learned.

The back and forth between Kahlo’s and Severo’s stories is the edge that makes this a bigger story than a self-portrait of Kahlo or reflection of the author. It broadens the reach of what we all have in common with one another. At times the play falls into too much emphasis on the playwright’s story — at the beginning, when Severo introduces herself and wonders out loud about her resemblance to Frida, it borders on too much information. Then again, she was setting up the story — perhaps too intrusively.

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Subtle theatrical details shimmer throughout the play, thanks in part to director Joanie Schultz and her team, including sound designer Thomas Dixon. The occasional sounds—such as the smashing dish (not all of them, just one) and the shiver of street-life noise when Kahlo meets Rivera—add to the atmosphere and story without bashing you over the head. 

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

Credit costume designer Katherine Davis with the colorful period clothes imbued with lives and stories of their own as they rise and fall and dance  throughout the play, both on and off the clothesline. There’s a starched white coat for the doctor who treats Kahlo after the bus accident, an oversized beige suit for the larger-than-life Rivera, unused pristine white  baby clothes for Kahlo’s unborn child. Rachel Cady’s lighting sharpens Kahlo/Severo’s moods and emotions. These theatrical values shape  Self-Portrait into a notable production.

This play should take some of the credit if Frida Fascination forges on.

***

About the author

Angela Allen writes about the arts, especially opera, jazz, chamber music, and photography. Since 1984, she has contributed regularly to online and print publications, including Oregon ArtsWatch, The Columbian, The San Diego Union-Tribune, Willamette Week, The Oregonian, among others. She teaches photography and creative writing to Oregon students, and in 2009, served as Fishtrap’s Eastern Oregon Writer-in-Residence. A published poet and photographer, she’s a member of the Music Critics Association of North America and a recipient of an NEA-Columbia Journalism grant. She earned an M.A. in journalism from University of Oregon in 1984, and 30 years later received her MFA in Creative Writing/Poetry from Pacific Lutheran University. She lives in Portland with her scientist husband and often unwieldy garden. Contact Angela Allen through her website.

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