July 26, 2006
"People are like paintings," said Frida Kahlo, "Some you should view from a distance and others close up. Me you should view with cognac."
Viva La Vida!, the world premiere play about the life of famed painter Frida Kahlo embodied with great vitality by Mercedes Ruehl at the Bay Street Theatre, provides the audience with that intimate, close-up portrait of a brilliant artist and her tortured relationship with a man who was both her blessing and her curse.
Written by Diane Schaffer and directed by Susana Tubert, the three character drama summarizes Frida's last 15 months in 1953 where she rides the emotional wave of the high of her first individual exhibition in Mexico (even though she'd been in the Louvre for years) which she attends in a hospital bed, to the excruciating pain of a body failing her after botched surgeries and the withdrawal of her beloved husband, the artist Diego Rivera played by Rene Pereyra. Frida's impending death is foreshadowed by three mariachis who stand at the ready to escort her in musical style to the afterlife, the Mexican version of the fat lady singing.
Set Designer Narelle Sissons gives us the enclosed feeling she has of a trapped animal in her bedroom with a skeleton on one side, a constant reminder of her mortality, and a small canvas at the other, representing the pull of her work. Her paintings are shown on the wall behind the bed with projection design by Brian Beasley, changing to mirror her mood, reflecting her inner feelings in her paintings, the very willingness to be so raw which makes her work so powerful.
Yet beyond life or art, it is her love for Diego whom she married when she was 22 and when he was 43 which fuels her and yet kills her, the irony not lost on one so proud, as she described it "to die daily from the very thing that feeds you." She cites the two great accidents of her life as being hit by a streetcar when she was 18, breaking her pelvis, spine, and leg, which would never truly heal and meeting Diego Rivera.
Even at her most ill, she still lights up in the presence of this man, and their dialogue, as well as reflecting their conflict, reveals the humor and vulnerability of their connection. Both Ruehl and Pereyra manage to portray the incredible individual strengths of these two headstrong artists as well as the soft spot they have for one another, creating the heart of the story, punctuated briefly by Richard Martinez's music.
The cast is rounded out by the fictional nurse Rosita played by Liza Colon-Zayas who is there to pick up the pieces of Frida's fractured body and soul. She sees the truth beneath Frida's harsh veneer and finds herself both the object of great affection and the punching bag of Kahlo's increasing frustration and deterioration. Colon-Zayas skillfully portrays the push/pull of devotion to a great wounded woman while being repelled by her self-destruction and verbal abuse.
Kahlo's prognostication that "too much love never goes unpunished," may have ignited the flames of the fire which consumed her, yet her greatest fear, that she would be forgotten, has clearly not happened. As she dances in the finale on newly found nimble feet to the mariachis of the after life, she can rest assured, with Viva La Vida! that her life and work will be well remembered.