Seeing any show at Matthew Posey's 40-seat Ochre House is a bit like watching a circus unfold in a walk-in closet. So much happens in so little square footage that you come out with your head buzzing, wondering why a big theater like the Wyly doesn't use its vast expanse this creatively.
Posey's latest small-space spectacle is his new play about Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, portrayed by Ochre House regular Elizabeth Evans complete with fuzzy upper lip and black bird-wing eyebrows. In Ex Voto: The Immaculate Conceptions of Frida Kahlo, Posey, who wrote and directed, lavishes his 12-foot-wide stage with stunning images from Kahlo's life and art.
Her tumultuous marriage to artist Diego Rivera (Dante Martinez) is central to the timeline, as the two painters fall in and out of love and in again over two decades. Posey lets Kahlo tell her story herself, speaking directly to the audience and fixing us with her burning gaze. She's playful and funny talking about her upbringing as the daughter of a photographer (played by Kevin Grammer), and fiery-angry when it gets to her marriage to the alcoholic, philandering Rivera. As he gained high-paying commissions as a muralist, she struggled to earn respect and money as a surrealist painter in the 1930s, '40s and early '50s. (She died in 1954 at age 47.)
If this were just a bio-drama about Kahlo and Rivera, the searing performances by Evans and Martinez, who look eerily like their characters and have sizzling chemistry together, would be enough to recommend it. But as an auteur of everything he stages at his tiny storefront playhouse by Fair Park, Posey has bigger ideas at work. Whether he realizes it or not, he's written a play with a strong feminist message. Ex Voto isn't just about Kahlo's conflicts with a male-dominated art world; here Kahlo represents all women who feel confined by a paternalistic culture and who strain against it. Remember, it was the young feminists of the 1970s who rediscovered Kahlo and made her an icon. (Now she's a keychain, a throw pillow and a tote bag, but what's an icon without some tacky souvenirs?)
The play also spends many of its 150 minutes showing how Kahlo dealt with chronic physical pain. According to biographers and Posey, she was often ignored or ill-treated by male doctors. Lots of women can relate to that too.
Kahlo became an artist out of illness. She suffered a horrendous array of medical challenges in her life, starting with polio at age 5. In her teens, she was badly injured in a bus accident that left her with crushed vertebrae and a shattered pelvis. Misdiagnosed conditions, including spina bifida and gangrene, plus a series of surgical mistakes, kept her bedridden for long periods. She began painting from her bed at 18 and many of her later works, including the St. Sebastian-like image of herself in her painting "The Broken Column," bare-breasted, wrapped in a back-brace and studded with nails, are expressions of her experience with intense physical agony.
Everything in the first act of Posey's play leads to Kahlo's miscarriage in 1932, the subject of several of her most famous paintings. In one intense scene, Posey uses a style he often employs in his shows, a goofy diversion into low comedy that he calls "new vaudeville." Pregnant and seeking treatment for her back, Kahlo is examined in a Detroit hospital by a nurse and two doctors (Cyndee Rivera, Trenton Stephenson and Mitchell Parrack, wearing black bodysuits that cover their faces). As they decide whether she can undergo another operation that might risk the loss of the baby, the three crack flippant, tasteless jokes at Kahlo's expense and misuse Spanish profanities as if they were compliments.
It's a touch of the surreal as Dr. Pratt and Dr. Bob journey into Kahlo's uterus the way Welshmen go down into coalmines. A puppet fetus dances in shadow-play below the examining table as Kahlo, contorted above, begs the doctors to save her baby. They ignore her and make light of her condition with constant comic patter. Naked on the hospital bed, Kahlo stares up at a floating fetus, a snail, a rose and other objects connected by vein-like strings. It's a graphic, startling visual given extra emotional punch by the haunting tune played by the show's three-piece band — Justin Locklear on accordion and guitar, Stefan Gonzalez on percussion and Delilah Buitrón on vocals — all made up in Día de los Muertos faces and situated just offstage.
That scene ends in the three-dimensional version of a Kahlo painting titled "Henry Ford Hospital." Other well-known Kahlos, including "Diego and I," "My Nurse" and "The Two Fridas," are re-created in life-size scale onstage in Ex Voto. How Posey, his cast and the design team of Stephenson, Lucy Kirkman and Samantha Rodriguez bring the paintings to life is a big part of the wow factor of this production. Each time a painting is revealed, sometimes with the actors' faces stuck into them like a carnival photo booth, it's to punctuate another chapter in Kahlo's personal history, usually a tragic one.
Ex Voto is best when it is capturing the look of Kahlo's work and its dreamlike qualities, which often drew from the Mexican tradition of retablos, in which paintings depict prayers and vows. Death is always lurking somewhere in this play. Between scenes a death's-head puppet-skeleton dances downstage with the beautiful Buitrón, who also sings with Locklear throughout the play. Scenery changes happen in the hands of black-clad puppeteers who make chairs and tables fly on and off. At center stage is the large bed where Kahlo spends much of her life, only here it's perpendicular to the floor so we can see her straight on, like a body laid out in a casket.
So much of this piece is brilliantly conceived and performed, the parts that aren't are obvious. The actors, particularly Evans and Rivera, who also plays Kahlo's younger sister, work hard to bring emotional depth to a script that often isn't as polished as it should be. Posey sometimes settles for clichés where he could have found something original for the characters to say. "We fight like cats and dogs," says Kahlo of her husband. And "There's enough Demerol in me to kill a mule."
The magic here is more about what meets the eye than the ear. Costumes by Locklear duplicate the folkloric details of Kahlo's clothing, all those sweeping cotton skirts and peasant blouses seen in her self-portraits. Evans seems even to have studied how the artist held her cigarettes and how her thick, dark hair wrapped around her neck. It's a gutsy, gorgeous performance, the best this actress has done with this company.
In 1939, Kahlo lived and painted in Paris, forming friendships with Marcel Duchamp and Pablo Picasso. Sculptor and assemblage artist Joseph Cornell was fascinated enough by Kahlo to create one of his boxes in her honor. At the always experimental Ochre House, Matthew Posey is doing something like that, too, taking the immensity of this renowned artist's world and fitting it beautifully inside one remarkably small frame.