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Allegra Fulton as Frida Kahlo. Dean Godwin photo.
Allegra Fulton as Frida Kahlo. Dean Godwin photo.

Theatre review: Frida K. at the NAC in Ottawa

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Frida K. runs at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa through January 27. Resident theatre critic Connie Meng was at the opening night and has our review.

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Connie Meng
Theatre Critic

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I try to stay away from words like "mesmerizing", but the production of FRIDA K. at the NAC is just that.  Written by playwright Gloria Montero for her actress daughter Allegra Fulton and directed by the NAC's Artistic Director Peter Hinton, the 90 minute playing time feels more like an intense 20 minutes.  First produced in 1994, this main stage production has been mounted by the original creative team to celebrate the centenary of Frida Kahlo's birth.

Frida Kahlo, an iconoclast and one of Mexico's most famous artists, was born in 1907.  She contracted polio at the age of six, then at 18 was in a bus accident and sustained multiple fractures of the pelvis, spine and leg.  As Mr. Hinton says, she was able, through her painting, to transform her pain and physical suffering into beauty and personal triumph.

The play takes place on the day of Frida's first and only solo exhibition in Mexico a year before her death in 1954.  As she prepares, she shares with us the memories and events of her extraordinary life.  This is a woman of humor, rage, idealism, intelligence and pathos.  A remarkable intimacy with the audience is created as she draws us into her life.

Allegra Fulton is an actress of exceptional power and subtlety.  Her ability to portray this complex character at various ages and stages of her life is so thorough and believable that by the end of the piece we feel that not only have we met the artist, but also the child, the lover, the revolutionary crusader and most of all the complete woman.

Like the other productions of Peter Hinton's that I've seen, FRIDA K. is highly theatrical and visually stunning.  Ken Garnhum's set echoes the surrealism of Frida's paintings, with realistic furniture that imperceptibly glides silently to new positions.  His costume design, also echoing her paintings, cleverly allows for Frida's age transitions.  Bonnie Beecher's lighting is subtle and effective.  At one point all we can see are Frida's eyes.  Troy Slocum's sound design is also subtle and adds a great deal to the production.

Director Hinton has used all these design elements to concentrate our attention on the character.  The high production values never distract from Frida's humanity.  This is theatricality the way it's meant to be used - to support the play and the actress in such a way as to produce a complete experience.  The opening night audience gave Miss Fulton a spontaneous and well-deserved standing ovation.

This is a powerful piece.  There are many moments that will stay in my mind for some time.  If you go, and I highly recommend it, don't miss Assistant Director Diane D'Aquila's excellent lobby exhibit of prints, photographs, and letters of and about Frida Kahlo's life and work.

On a scale of one to five, the NAC/Go Diva/Citadel Theatre co-production of FRIDA K. gets five Royal Canadian Mounted Police.  For North Country Public Radio I'm Connie Meng.

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