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SU FRIDA CALÓ Resurrects Legendary Artist and Proto-Feminist

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Mamie Aldama (bed) and Mari Mercado in "Atrapada y Perdida," from Su Frida Caló. Photo: Nadia Andrade.

Review by Alci Rengifo

Frida Kahlo has joined the pantheon of immortals commodified by pop culture. The great Mexican artist stands by Che Guevara, Emiliano Zapata and Mao as one of those historical figures who graces t-shirts, soda bottles and bags to be paraded by trendy types unaware of the history behind any of these names. But a new, blistering theater marathon by the group Chicanas, Cholas y Chisme over at Casa 0101 Theater makes an admirable attempt at capturing not only details of Frida’s life, but the actual spirit of what she represents timelessly in our own era.

In a recent run from mid-March - to mid-April run, the show—titled Su Frida Caló under the guidance of artistic director Josefina López—presented a collection of 21 (yes, you read that correctly) plays written and directed by women playwrights and directors. Each of the 21 pieces either interprets an aspect of Frida’s life or offers a modern vision connected to the theme of Frida’s power as an icon. Some of the plays are mysterious and dark, others uproariously funny.

Within the 21 plays there were some stand out gems that resonated with hard-hitting, sometimes visceral drama. Many of these works vibrated with love sickness, the shadow of history and urgent explorations about who we are today.

Staged in a dreamy, colorful set evoking Frida’s art—complete with a blazing red socialist star in the sky—the anthology kicked off with “La Casa Azul,” a comic but insightful piece written by Maria G. Martínez and directed by Claudia Durán. With great gusto Mamie Aldama plays a young, semi-hipster student who likes to post hashtags with Standing Rock, but argues with her mother—played by Miriam Peniche—about the controversial aspects of Frida’s legacy, including Diego Rivera’s support for the repatriation programs that forced the transfer of U.S.-born Mexicans-Americans from the U.S. to Mexico.

It’s a fun romp about the newer generation, which likes to dismiss political classification, clashing with an older generation that grew up under the shadow of the Cold War. Sandra Gutiérrez is sultry and fun as Aldama’s vivacious sister who flirts with a bartender played by Alfonso Illan Sutton.

Some of the strongest work, however, deals with Frida’s importance as an icon of women’s liberation. “Puta,” written by Patricia Zamorano and directed by Lauren-Kate Kush, offers a powerful monologue delivered by Lauren Ballesteros. Dressed in a stylish men’s blazer and pants, with black boots in a style reminiscent of the famous self-portrait by Kahlo in men’s clothing, Ballestero’s Frida proclaims her freedom from gender labels with formidable, unforgettable aplomb.

Swigging a whiskey bottle, pacing or sitting in a lover’s bed, commanding the audience with her stare, Ballesteros delivers a burning aria denouncing the double standards society imposes on women who live freely, socially and sexually, while forgiving men their indiscretions. The writing is a frontal assault of honesty as Ballesteros describes being made love to by Leon Trotsky’s “Marxist revolutionary tongue.” Gender labels are dismissed as the monologue proclaims an individual’s right to identify as they wish. The writing is reminiscent of the work of Tony Kushner.

In “Comete Flores,” another vision of Frida, here played by Sheresade Poblet from a script by Rosa Lisbeth Navarrete, engages in a fierce debate with another artist played by Angel Lizárraga. It is a piece that builds to an explosive climax as Lizárraga pushes Poblet’s Frida to stop trying to paint herself in clean cut, saintly terms and instead embrace her renegade, take no prisoners identity. Set in a studio where the two are painting, the pair soon fight and tussle on the floor in feral rage ably directed by Carmelita Maldonado.

Another piece which provided a piercing commentary on women and society is the dark and powerful “Miscarriage of Justice.” This searing play written by Angela Moore, and directed by Claudia Durán, is a challenging take on the idea of choice. A pregnant woman, played by Mamie Aldama, suffers a car accident A doctor recommends she terminate her pregnancy. Her mother, played by Miriam Peniche in a performance of scarred silences, recounts her own, bloody miscarriage after being coerced by doctors into taking dangerous medication.

In a blistering moment, Peniche’s character also confesses her ability to bear children was cruelly taken away as the result of a surgical procedure performed on her by a physician without her true consent. The painful memory alludes to the shameful legacy of mass sterilizations undergone by Mexican-American women who visited County General in the late '60s and early ‘70s to have their babies delivered, only much later discovering they could no longer conceive.

The play, gothic and disturbing, challenges the audience to seriously confront what choice means when it comes to a woman’s body, where it concerns the decision to bring a pregnancy to term, or the general autonomy over her  reproductive rights.  One shadow that hovers over this piece is the story of Frida’s own unsuccessful pregnancies. An equally somber shroud in Moore’s gut-wrenching tale stems from the untold number of tubal ligation surgeries performed on  young East L.A. mothers at County General, a controversial and medically sanctioned practice documented in the PBS film No Más Bebés, directed by Renee Tajima-Peña and co-produced by Virginia Espino. victims of those sterilizations.

Yet not all the works presented are dark journeys into the soul. “Grandma Mary Regrettably Returns to Texas” is a hilarious work written by Lindsey Haley and directed by Angela Moore, in which a prudish Texas mom played by Mari Mercado deals with a rebellious daughter (Karla López Aguiñiga) dressing as Frida to reconnect with her roots.

Meanwhile grandma (Peniche) is having flashbacks to when she ran away long ago with a lover to Mexico and met Frida herself. It’s a wonderful piece that taps into the southwest culture of Mexican Americans with heavy gringo accents clueless about their link to the historical events from across the Rio Grande.

Penned by Nadia Andrade, the humorous “El Amor Eterno,” plays like a dream as Frida Kahlo sleeps in a bed, while a macho, hard-drinking male stereotype played by Aldama prowls a bar, befriends a vixen played by Poblet only to find out she is the lover of Trotsky, played with comic charm by Michael Correa (who sadly only lacked the appropriate beard and mustache of the Bolshevik leader). Knives are soon drawn in classic cantina stand-off style.

“I Fell In Love With A Beautiful Asshole” stands out in its dream-like power. It is a haunting monologue, written by Brenda Perez and directed by Cinnamon Rivera, in which a woman (Aguiñiga), narrates her tragic love affair with a local, hard-drinking, Frida-quoting rebel who spirals towards his own death. This piece is muscularly staged as Aguiniga speaks to the audience, the apparition of her lover (Lizaárraga), sitting silently in the background.

Indeed many moments of Su Frida Caló feel like reveries or dark imaginings. Some of the plays merely fantasize intense moments between Frida and Diego Rivera (brilliantly played through out by the productions by an appropriately rotund and imposing Ray Ríos). Their notorious, complex romance is mined in some of the plays for intense melodrama.

If there is any general weakness to the productions it is just that some of the playwrights linger a bit too long on the theme of Frida and Diego as “intense” or “passionate” lovers, constantly slapping and drawing blades on each other. These are complex historical figures of a modern era dominated by revolution, World War II, and the politics of the Mexican and Russian revolutions.

It would have been interesting to see what insights the writers would deduced from exploring just how Frida saw the world in terms of her radical politics. If Marxism is now taboo, it still doesn’t change the fact that Frida was an artist of her time, along with Leonora Carrington and other figures shaped by socialism, Surrealism and war.

With 21 plays, there should be ample room to explore the widest of themes concerning this generally misunderstood artist, and the redundancy of some of the scenarios can make the production feel a bit too long. You find yourself wishing for a bit of the spirit of Brecht.

But make no mistake, Su Frida Caló is a triumph of stage craft. The set design is a brilliant collage of art and film, as historical clips provide historical backdrops or real life portraits of the historical figures being evoked. Music ranging from Elliot Goldenthal’s Oscar-winning score for the film Frida to a selection from La La Land provided a nice ambiance to some of the pieces.

The writers and entire cast and crew bravely avoided making mere historical reenactments. They instead truly captured the meaning of Kahlo's transcendence through lives and experiences. This is theater that acknowledges history, but makes it thrillingly relevant. For nothing is more relevant in the Frida legend than the struggle to survive, to create, even in the despair of longing for impossible love.

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Brooklyn & Boyle is a print and online magazine dedicated to Art & Life in Boyle Heights and Beyond. The publication features Brooklyn & Boyle stories from the Greater Eastside LA arts scene, including but not limited to the neighborhoods of Boyle Heights, City Terrace, East LA, Lincoln Heights, El Sereno, South Pasadena, Cypress Park, Arroyo Seco, Highland Park, and Eagle Rock, places every bit as creative and cultured as one another while aware and active in support of authentic arts and creative projects which support community integrity and respect for the history and heritage of the many Eastside neighborhoods.

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