The color of Kahlo

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AURORA | That intense stare, those vibrant colors and that singular style hooked Melissa Lucero McCarl and simply refused to let go.

Frida Kahlo’s artwork hypnotized McCarl, a Denver-based playwright, from the moment she first set eyes on one of the Mexican painter’s many self-portraits. It didn’t matter that the painting was more than 50 years old, or that it was a scaled-down reproduction printed on the glossy pages of the New Yorker magazine. On a flight from Denver to Los Angeles more than 10 years ago, McCarl found an immediate kind of inspiration in Kahlo’s work.

“It just sucked me in. I couldn’t stop thinking about her,” McCarl said years after seeing that image for the first time. “It was the portrait itself. I couldn’t look away from it.”

Years later, McCarl still hasn’t been able to fully look away. McCarl’s original drama “Painted Bread,” kicking off this week at the Aurora Fox theater, is a staged version of the painter’s life story, written shortly after she found Kahlo’s work in the magazine. The piece, which made its debut in Denver in 2003, is a live-action portrait of the artist’s life; it’s McCarl’s dramatic take on the personality behind the portrait that was so entrancing.

“I almost called it ‘Viva La Vida,’ which was the title of her last painting,” McCarl said. “She was dying, but this painting is so full of joy.

“That’s what’s so inspiring to me,” she added.

The show tells the painter’s life story through the vantage of different self-portraits. In the show, a walk through a contemporary art museum opens a window to the different phases of Kahlo’s career, from her first tableaus painted in the late 1920s to her final works in the 1940s.

In between, the show offers a story of plenty of pain and conflict. The bus accident that left Kahlo with permanent injuries, the stormy marriage to celebrated Mexican painter Diego Rivera, the persistent illnesses that claimed her life at the age of 47 — all of these biographical elements play into McCarl’s work.

Through all of those hurdles, however, the mood of the piece remains joyous.

“We say that drama is made up of conflict. That’s the cliché part of it,” McCarl explained before a recent rehearsal of the show at the Fox. “What’s more interesting to me is when someone faces a lot of conflict and still finds the joy. That was clear to me about Frida. Everything that could go wrong did, and she still had ‘allegría,’” she said, using the Spanish word for “love of life.”

The theme of joy in the face of hardship comes through in the performance of Karen Slack as Frida. Through three different productions of the show over a course of more than a decade, Slack has been the constant, coming back to play the lead role on different stages with different directors.

“Other actors have come in and out. She’s the only original member,” McCarl said, praising Slack’s disciplined and strict approach to her roles.

That has a lot to do with Slack’s return to the role, as does her resemblance to Kahlo. But there’s a deeper link between the performer and the subject in this show. Like McCarl, Slack found an immediate connection to Kahlo’s art. It was in doing the exhaustive research for the role, however, that Slack discovered the bonds to the painter born in Coyoacán, Mexico, in 1907.

“There’s something about her work that invades you … I’d always admired Frida’s work. I knew I needed her, I didn’t really know why,” said Slack, an accomplished actor who’s worked with Curious Theatre and the Colorado Shakespeare Festival. “I really delved into research and I studied everything and anything I could get my hands on — about her, about Diego, about their lives, about her work.”

That’s when the deep connections started showing up. Slack, who’s had her own issues with spine injuries and surgeries, learned about the permanent scars that followed Kahlo after a bus accident in 1925. The painter spent months in a full body cast. Phantom pain would haunt her for the rest of her life, and Kahlo was never able to carry children to term because of injuries sustained in the accident.

Such connections have only become clearer in the 11 years since Slack first took on the role.

“It’s just more intense, everything is a little deeper,” Slack said. “The pain, the love, the anger. Life keeps getting more and more full and deeper in color as you age. I feel like I can play this woman much more vibrantly.”

Her performance comes on a stage vividly designed by Aurora Fox Executive Producer Charles Packard, during a Fox season touted as the “Season of Style.” The show, which takes place in an unspecified modern art museum, unrolls on a set that could easily be the Prado Museum in Spain at points, or the backyard of Kahlo’s blue house in Mexico City at others.

“You learn so much about Kahlo in a short amount of time in this show,” Director Warren Sherrill said. “That, to me, was my number one goal with this — let’s open peoples’ eyes about Frida.”

That aligns with McCarl’s original creative mission. The effect of the show is designed to be hypnotic, compelling and clear, she said, just like the mystifying self-portrait that had such a profound effect more than a decade ago.

 

Reach reporter Adam Goldstein at 720-449-9707 or [email protected]