Like many great female artists of her day, including Camille Claudel and Paula Modersohn-Becker, Frida Kahlo's career was overshadowed by her husband's work. Fortunately, she lived to see the day when it was recognized in its own right.
Kahlo's story is all the more remarkable for the fact that she was impaled as a child in a accident, and suffered debilitating pain her entire life from this injury and the dozens of unsuccessful surgeries that sought to repair the damage. Yet, like so many artists, the greatness of her work is partially defined by this suffusion of nerve-wracking emotion.
This inspiring and tragic story is captured in the restaging of local actress and playwright Melissa McCarl's Painted Bread, now running at the Theatre on Broadway. Originally produced six years ago at the First Colorado Women's Playwright Festival, the play serves as a showcase for Kahlo's most famous canvasses and her tumultuous relationship with the great muralist Diego Rivera.
Karen Slack, as Frida, is transcendent, sweeping us along on her epic journey. From child-like wonderment, as young Frida, to Christ-like compassion and stoicism as an adult, Slack single-handedly provides the emotional arc and catharsis for the story. Her costumes, which reflect the attire worn by Kahlo in her life-defining series of self-portraits, are breathtaking, overflowing with vibrant flowers.
Jeffrey Atherton, as Diego, captures the larger-than-life appetites and joviality of this playful and explosive man. Despite the startling contrast in their physical appearances, Atherton and Slack share the unmistakeable chemistry of this quirky couple that lived in separate houses joined by a bridge.
The representation of Spanish-flavored English accents in the piece are most consistent when coming from Slack, and Atherton generally does solid work in this area as well, though the ensemble finds the going slippery.
With few changes having been made in the script since it's debut six years ago, the strength of the play remains the dialogues between Frida and Diego and others, as well as the tableaus that result from these interactions, which end up recreating of her paintings; the weaknesses of the play are still the sections devoted to telling us about her life, rather than showing us. The device of the art gallery tour is unnecessary. The scenes from her life suffice, and no excuse is needed to frame the quintessential moments.
Despite these drawbacks in the script and minor ineffectiveness in some of the blocking, Slack's performance brings Frida alive in a way that only live theatre can. The Theatre Group's production of Melissa McCarl's Painted Bread runs at the Theatre on Broadway on Thursdays and Saturdays through September 13th. 303-777-3292.