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A stiff portrait of Frida Kahlo in 'La Casa Azul'

Robert Lepage, a Canadian stage wizard, paints striking visuals, but this telling of the artist's eventful life seems too obvious.

May 30, 2003|Don Shirley | Times Staff Writer

How do you make the Frida Kahlo story feel fresh?

This challenge may not have seemed so daunting when "La Casa Azul," a biographical dramatization of the Mexican artist, opened in Montreal in 2001. But the production has arrived in Los Angeles, at UCLA's Freud Playhouse, in the wake of the movie "Frida" -- which opened last fall amid a surge of publicity, won two Oscars and is about to be released on video and DVD. "La Casa Azul" also follows a decade of sporadic performances in L.A. of another Kahlo script from the bilingual company Grupo de Teatro Sinergia.

The distinction of "La Casa Azul" is that it's staged by Robert Lepage, the Canadian wizard whose unforgettable "the far side of the moon" played the Freud last year. Lepage unveils some of the same theatrical legerdemain in this newer production.

But he didn't write it (as he did with "the far side of the moon"). The "Casa Azul" text is by Sophie Faucher, the actress who plays Kahlo, and the English translation is by Neil Bartlett. At this late hour in the telling of Kahlo's tale, Faucher's narrative structure and her dialogue feel thuddingly obvious.

It's not surprising that visual-minded theatrical innovators like Lepage and Julie Taymor, who directed the "Frida" movie, are drawn to this story. Kahlo lived a screechingly dramatic life, with an original style that permeated her appearance as well as her paintings -- most of which involved some element of self-portrait. She had a tempestuous marriage to Diego Rivera, whose mountainous presence superseded her during her lifetime. But a generation of latter-day feminist-influenced fans have found her story and her art as compelling as his.

A bus accident severely injured Kahlo when she was 18 and created a lifetime of pain and surgeries, making her achievements all the more impressive. Any dramatization of her life must come to terms with her chronic pain -- but not to the extent that the audience flees.

"La Casa Azul" achieves this most vividly in a scene inspired by Kahlo's 1944 self-portrait "The Broken Column," in which she appears bare-breasted through an orthopedic brace. Faucher appears in a similar outfit and is suspended over the stage and bashed like a pinata. Ouch.

Otherwise, the sense of pain feels artfully drawn yet somewhat distant -- a criticism that also was leveled at the movie. It doesn't help that much of the production takes place behind an ultra-thin, gauzy scrim separating audience from stage. The scrim also serves as a screen for a variety of projected images.

Most of the story is presented chronologically, but it begins with a scene in which a black-clad Death figure discusses Kahlo, while the artist is seen painting on a canvas that rapidly changes colors. Death reappears in various guises throughout the performance, which has no intermission. Kahlo's final words in the script: "I've spent my whole life dying."

In addition to the pinata scene, several startling visual images also stand out. As Kahlo relates the story of her accident to Rivera while lounging in a bath, the tub suddenly is upended and the water turns to blood. Intense red light suffuses a scene in which they watch an eclipse.

After Rivera is asked to eliminate an image of Lenin from a New York mural he is creating, he takes an ax to the image of the mural on the screen, which appears to shatter into a hundred pieces. Rivera's affair with Kahlo's sister is depicted as he transfers a dress from one sister to the other.

A dark blue background ("La Casa Azul" refers to the blue house in which Kahlo lived -- and figuratively, perhaps, to death) hovers in many of the scenes, intensifying the focus on the imagery at the front of the stage.

The projections, also upfront, create a movie-like sensation at times. In one entertaining but baffling film clip, a young man plays a trumpet as he simultaneously manipulates a hand puppet.

Faucher as Kahlo, Patric Saucier as Rivera and Lise Roy as everyone else -- from Death to Kahlo's sister to Leon Trotsky -- all look right for their roles and handle them with crisp confidence, but the two women have French accents that are sometimes distracting.

The cast shares the curtain call with seven backstage crew members.

*

'La Casa Azul'

Where: Freud Playhouse, near northeastern corner of UCLA, Sunset Boulevard and Hilgard Avenue

When: Today, Saturday, 8 p.m.; Sunday, 7 p.m.

Ends: Sunday

Price: $45

Contact: (310) 825-2101

Running Time: 1 hour, 30 minutes

Sophie Faucher...Frida Kahlo

Patric Saucier...Diego Rivera

Lise Roy...Many roles

By Sophie Faucher, inspired by the writings of Frida Kahlo. Translated by Neil Bartlett. Directed by Robert Lepage. Sets by Carl Fillion. Lighting by Sonoyo Nishikawa. Costumes by Veronique Borboen. Images by Jacques Collin.

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