Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Cincinnati

Frida...A Self Portrait
Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park
Review by Rick Pender

Also see Scott's recent review of Something Rotten!

Vanessa Severo
Photo by Mikki Schaffner
Vanessa Severo's Frida...A Self Portrait, ostensibly a one-woman show about the renowned Mexican painter, is also a multifaceted piece with insights about the playwright herself and powerful messages for women in general. Severo, also an actor and dancer, has worked and reworked her show since its first production in 2019. This time it's being presented by the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park (at The Carnegie Theatre in Covington, Kentucky, while the Playhouse finishes construction of its new mainstage theater). Severo's partner in creating this piece has been Joanie Schultz, who recently joined the Playhouse as associate artistic director. This is her first production for Cincinnati's Tony Award-winning regional theater company.

Schultz and Severo have crafted a compelling production, built around the actor's commanding stage presence as well as creative scenic design by Jacqueline Penrod. The Carnegie stage was originally designed for lectures rather than theatrical performances, so it has physical limitations, but you wouldn't know that from this production. Penrod's design is a forced-perspective abstraction of a four-poster bed, a reminder that Kahlo spent much of her life bed-ridden due to polio and a horrific bus accident when she was 18. The bed represents her bedroom at Casa Azul, her home throughout her short life. The narrative is imagined to be an interior monologue on July 13, 1954, the day before her death at age 47 from a pulmonary embolism.

The stage is initially strung with three clotheslines with various articles of clothing hanging from them. (Katherine Davis is the production designer.) Severo comes onstage as herself at the 80-minute production's beginning and speaks to the audience about reading a biography of Kahlo, particularly the artist's statement that she had thought of herself as "the strangest person in the world." That remark resonated with the actor, and she began a long exploration of Kahlo's life.

Severo presents elements Kahlo's life by changing into and out items she plucks from the clotheslines as she portrays herself, Kahlo, and an array of people from Kahlo's life, including her parents and her on-again, off-again husband and mentor, muralist Diego Rivera. She speaks to a never-seen architect who has come to see Casa Azul, but to whom Kahlo offers revelatory insights into her psyche, her artistic temperament, her personal trials, and her attitudes about being a woman who sought to have a career in the male-dominated world of art.

Kahlo led a turbulent life, full of physical pain. She often reflected this in her paintings, many of which were self-portraits. Her images were uniquely conceived, sometimes in bright colors using a naïve, untutored style with strong elements of absurdism and magical realism. Severo conveys many of these paintings and themes with extreme physicality. She has a voice with a tremendous vocal range, and her physicality enables her to create male characters as convincingly as female. By merely slipping on a lab coat she becomes a callous physician who describes the young Kahlo's injuries following the bus accident. With her right arm in a sport coat, she is transformed into Rivera, caressing her, then grasping an empty dress to represent his thoughtless affair with her younger sister.

Watching Frida...A Self Portrait requires imagination on the part of the audience, but it is a mechanism that engages at both emotional and intellectual levels. Severo, who tells us she was born in Brazil, cites a Portuguese word, "saudade," not easily defined in English or Spanish. She says it means "the deepest longing for emotion, for someone or something that is now gone, but might return in the distant future." That's a deeply felt undercurrent running through this production.

We step back and forth between "self portraits" of Kahlo and Severo, two powerful women. Kahlo's creativity sought to achieve personal recognition for herself and her art in a world often inclined to make women disappear. Severo is surely driven by that same desire, and she has moments when she bursts forth with personal reminiscences from her own life. It's a complex form of storytelling, but it works effectively.

In her director's notes, Schultz wrote, "As the piece unfolds, there are moments when the lines become blurred between the actor and the character. What we are left with is pure Frida and pure Vanessa, both searching to be seen and understood." The play implores women to consider their own "self portraits" and to seek out and fully embody their own unique souls.

If the Playhouse were not engaged in construction of its new mainstage, this show would have been produced on its second stage, the intimate Rosenthal Shelterhouse Theatre. Nothing has been lost with this temporary venue. In fact, it has more seating for audiences, and Frida's imaginatively staged story makes the production worth seeing from start to finish.

Frida...A Self Portrait runs through November 6, 2022, produced by the Cincinnati Playhouse at The Carnegie Theatre, 1028 Scott Street, Covington KY. For tickets and information, please visit or call 513-421-3888.