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Review: Frida Kahlo: Viva La Vida at the Old 505

By Sasha Meaney

What an immense task it is to take on Frida Kahlo. The surrounding mythology builds her to the heights of a modern tragic hero – seemingly untouchable but very human. It’s rich fodder for Humberto Robles’ script and a daunting task for a one woman play. Frida Kahlo: Viva la Vida focuses Kahlo’s entire life into a 55 minute play. She evokes, ridicules and lusts for the other characters, notably all men, showing the audience a larger context in which she situates herself in her identity and as an artist.

The script is devoted to the facts of Kahlo’s life. The iconography is clear throughout, and the history is pretty spot on which is exciting for a Kahlo fan, and a good introduction for a newbie. Many of her comments on the surrealists and her art comes straight out of her mouth and onto the stage. But it doesn’t go further to develop a character beyond this history. It feels alluded to in the metallic screeches and the way she talks to her ligaments, but the dramatic character is never fully realized so the audience is kept in the realm of the historical.

Kate Bookallil pulls the audience on board with Frida, figuratively and literally for a quick dance at one stage. She holds our gaze strongly throughout, talking very casually and often crudely in almost Aussiesms. It’s an unusual and accessible interpretation of Frida, that successfully takes her off the myth like pedestal the art world has placed her on.

But Frida’s own background and her radicalness felt somewhat sacrificed to the casualness. This sacrifice might have been worthwhile if the script gave her room to explore more deeply her honesty and vulnerabilities. We just begin to see it as Bookallil says “I am conscious”, revealing a need to feel consistently engaged with her inner truth, but then we move on back through a historical overview.

In her director’s notes, Anna Jahjah writes about her design for the show and wanting it to appear “as if Frida bathed in her art”. This is well achieved, and a highlight of the play. Coming in to the theatre, Frida is lying on her bed holding a mask to her face and a skeleton sits in a wheelchair placed to the side. Through the show Bookallil decorates the stage with paper chains, flowers, portraits and cheekily amuses herself by drawing on skulls. Frida’s sense of fun and theatricality translates well on the stage and the set. Her constant revising of her own body, in opposition to the untouched Diego is really satisfying and clever. It pulls out those character themes of the script that I yearned to see more of.

It is an interesting premise, and it’s a great introduction if an audience didn’t know Frida Kahlo. Bookalil’s performance as Frida and the colorful staging will interest the longtime fan. But for the show to be about such a larger than life character it lacked a deeper intimacy that you would expect from a one woman show.

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All opinions and thoughts expressed within reviews on Theatre Travels are those of the writer and not of the company at large.

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