Local playwright Melissa Lucero McCarl's Painted Bread is a mixed bag. It's full of passionate feeling, but I also found myself bored and restless for long stretches while watching it. Still, the ending was moving, and the patterns and colors of thought evoked by the play stayed with me.
Painted Bread tells the story of Mexican painter Frida Kahlo through an interesting device: A tour guide leads a group through an exhibit of Kahlo's works, chirping half-baked platitudes about the artist. Framed in one of her famed self-portraits, Kahlo listens. And then she somehow manages to reach out through time and space to capture the guide's imagination. The woman begins a serious study of Kahlo's life and work.
Kahlo was, by all accounts, a first-rate painter. She's also a contemporary feminist heroine. Virginia Woolf once wrote an essay about Shakespeare's hypothetical sister -- a woman as brilliantly talented as Shakespeare himself. If such a sister had lived, according to Woolf, Elizabethan society would have prevented her from developing or expressing her genius, and posterity would never have known about her. It's certainly true that women artists have never been taken as seriously as men, and, as a result, the world may have lost many ineffable works. The women's movement has rescued several female reputations. But to become iconic seems to require something more than artistry and neglect. Most of the figures idolized by feminists have suffered in their private lives, too; many, in particular, were wronged by their men. Think of the great blues singers, breaking our hearts with lyrics about male violence and desertion. Think of Sylvia Plath. Kahlo's lover, the famous muralist Diego Rivera, was notoriously unfaithful. Add to this an accident that left Kahlo lying in the street, her back and vagina pierced by a pole, her body covered with blood and gold glitter (spilled by another passenger), and she becomes irresistible as a symbol.
Painted Bread is a worshipful account of Kahlo's life. Any eccentricities shown are endearing and permissible ones: profane language, a mocking attitude, a desire to break boundaries. The Kahlo of the play is unfailingly loving and fair toward Rivera and nurturing toward her students and everyone else. Was this woman never difficult, whiny or cruel?
Some of the dialogue is talky or static. Some scenes seem unnecessary, included more because these incidents actually happened than because they contribute to an overarching theme. A teacher seduces the young Kahlo, presumably because the playwright wants us to know about the artist's bisexuality, but it doesn't move the plot forward or seem to have anything to do with what follows. Occasionally the play lapses into sentimentality, as when Kahlo lies on her deathbed clad in white and surrounded by worshipful students. While they weepily discuss her greatness, she raises herself for some half-comprehensible ecstatic babble, then sinks down again.
There are interesting insights, however. It's fun hearing Kahlo's contempt for a European culture she considered effete, watching the push and pull of her relationship with Rivera and contemplating the paradox posed by his huge murals and her vibrant and exquisitely small pieces. Every now and then, there's a patch of lively, pithy, incisive dialogue -- though whether these words come from the historical record or are invented by the playwright, I don't know.
At the end of the play, Kahlo tells the audience she created her art to help bring us all freedom and peace. But although McCarl has mentioned Kahlo and Rivera's social activism in the play, she hasn't chosen to explore what it meant to them or how it relates to their art, and this makes Kahlo's comment seem ungrounded and inexplicable.
The production, directed by McCarl, is full of anomalies, as well. The tour guide is played at first like a character from Saturday Night Live, leaving us to expect a more cartoony and superficial play than we get. There's also a lascivious priest who mumbles and gropes like a penitent visiting the Church Lady. As she begins researching Kahlo's life, the guide carries a large book titled Frida for Dummies.
The acting is uneven and plagued by a variety of jarringly fake accents. Jeffrey Atherton feels a bit dusty and awkward for the juicy, sensual Rivera, and there's no feeling of sexual tension between him and Karen Slack, who plays Kahlo. The young students Kahlo teaches -- and who worship her in the same exaggerated terms that everyone else in her life seems to -- are played as squealingly and self-consciously cute as the little teddy bear in the fabric- softener commercial. Despite her initial chirpiness, Alex Ryer gives a good performance as the tour guide, becoming more moving and convincing as the character evolves.
But if the production does ultimately communicate some of the rich fierceness of Kahlo's work, it's because of Karen Slack's interpretation of Kahlo. Slack is a very strong actress whose work can easily slide over the top in a more muted role. In Kahlo, however, Slack meets her match. And though she positively quivers with feeling and gives the big dramatic scenes everything she's got, she's also controlled, modulated, tender and humorous when the part calls for it. Slack has developed a great laugh for the role, and she looks amazingly like Kahlo's self-portraits. It's Slack who makes us understand Kahlo's pain and courage, her humanity and her overwhelming need to paint.
Painted Bread could profit from some pruning and shaping, and I'd like to see the script less poundingly insistent on its own emotionality. But it does communicate a significant message, and its final image is wonderfully liberating.
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