Frida Ole

Industrial Arts Theatre continues to expand Denver's theatrical horizons with the first of what it hopes will be a long series of Colorado Women Playwrights Festivals. Running in repertory are two "programs"; the first features a full-length play, along with an amusing short, and it gets the festival off to a promising start. Flawed though they are, each of these plays is witty and intriguing enough to keep the viewer involved--which is saying a lot for first-time playwrights. What's more, both give the viewer something to think about later.

The show kicks off with the eight-minute St. George and the Dragon, in which the dragon manipulates poor old George into thinking that killing damsels is really a very good thing. In a capsule history of medieval misogyny, the dragon quotes St. Thomas Aquinas, who said God made a big mistake in creating women at all, and St. Clemens, who said women should be ashamed just to be women. (And you thought Freud was difficult to climb out from under.)

Playwright Beth Foster's revisionist view of St. George's motives--here the dragon is smart but evil, and George is none too bright--starts out with some rather sophomoric dialogue. But two or three minutes into it, the argument turns clever and Foster grabs you. Roger Winn as George and N. Stidger as the dragon give the production snap, and Foster's playlet makes a nice introduction to the more substantial Painted Bread, a full-length play by Melissa Lucero McCarl.

An awful lot has been written about the life of Mexican painter Frida Kahlo, widely regarded as a folk hero as well as a Mexican national art treasure. Kahlo, who died in 1954 at the age of 41, was married to the great Mexican muralist Diego Rivera. But she made her own niche in art history by painting nothing but self-portraits--hundreds of them--that were intended to chronicle contemporary Mexican culture along with her own commitment to Marxism and her personal history.

And a tragic personal history it was. The husband Kahlo adored couldn't keep his hands off other women, and he liked living and working in the United States, while Kahlo preferred Mexico. But it's the physical agony of her life--Kahlo was seriously injured in a bus accident when she was eighteen and never recovered--that most intrigues her many fans. And playwright McCarl handles that history of suffering with tact, insight and wit.

The best thing about this production is Therese Pickard as Kahlo. Pickard projects intelligence and charm in equal measure--her delivery is so unpremeditated that it sounds almost as if she's ad-libbing. She can punctuate heavy sociopolitical points with an endearing smile. And she is so real, so reasonable and so lovable as Kahlo that she makes the viewer want to study those paintings all over again.

That, of course, is the great thing about any successful historical play--the ability to revisit the past with a little more wisdom. But the play does have its problems. Kahlo was a communist, so McCarl tries to generate a little nostalgia for communism. It doesn't work. McCarl also introduces a completely extraneous character called the Tour Guide, who is supposed to lead us through an American museum's "South of the Border" wing. The guide doesn't have a clue about Mexican art, and McCarl obviously doesn't have a clue about modern-day docents, who are nothing if not reverential toward art--especially art of the third world.

The Tour Guide shows up several times, interrupting the action and making wholly uninteresting and tangential remarks. Nobody cares what she thinks, and she's as annoying as a horsefly. It's not the actress's fault--Alex Ryer does what is expected of her. The writing is what needs work.

However, McCarl employs another device that works very well: empty frames suspended from the ceiling, behind which Pickard poses, frozen in Kahlo-like attitudes, before she begins to speak. That sense of the artist breathing down on us out of time, of that individual consciousness still speaking to us, is very real and very rich.

McCarl is at her best when she's putting words in Kahlo's mouth, and much, if not all, of the dialogue in Painted Bread is lively and smart. This is work that opens up a section of history we would do well to explore--and briefly brings back to life an important artist.

Painted Bread and St. George and the Dragon, through February 23 at the New Denver Civic Theatre, 721 Santa Fe Drive, 595-3821.


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