Frida, a return

by Melanie Davis
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By Julie Cortez, El Hispanic News
  For her third resurrection of Frida Kahlo on the page and on the stage, playwright and actress Dañel Malán wants to offer her audience more than the passive experience of watching her play and her performance unfold on stage. Show up an hour before the curtain rises on “FRIDA, un retablo,†and you’ll have the chance to view recreations of scenes from Kahlo’s home, read her letters and poetry, learn how to draw a self-portrait, and even try on clothes and makeup inspired by the iconic artist. “You see art, you do art, you become art — and then you go see the play,†Malán says. “For me, it’s really about helping the audience to understand the mind of the artist.†Malán has spent over a decade immersing herself in the mind of Frida Kahlo. Teatro Milagro staged her first version of “FRIDA, un retablo†in 2002, the second in 2005, and the third takes the Miracle stage Jan. 10-19, before hitting the road for a tour that will last through November. “Each Frida play has been uniquely different,†she says. One reason this incarnation stands apart is the influence of its director, Gabriela Portuguez, a choreographer who has made movement an important part of the story-telling.
In all three versions, Kahlo has been represented by three different actors — this time embodying the “Iconic Frida,†the “Spirit of Frida,†and “Old Frida.†“I’m playing the masculine side of Frida, as a spirit,†says Malán, who dresses in men’s clothing to look like one of the self-portraits Kahlo painted after she divorced Diego. The play’s exploration of gender goes further by casting a male actor, Ajai Terrazas-Tripathi, as “Old Frida.†Kahlo had affairs with both men and women and regularly expressed both her femininity and masculinity through fashion. “She wanted to be out there, and be loud and be proud, as people say today,†Malán says. “As an artist, as a person, as a communist — she actually worked really hard not to have labels.†Malán, too, is difficult to classify. Miracle Theatre co-founder, Teatro Milagro artistic director, playwright, actress — the performing arts have dominated Malán’s life for decades. But beneath the performer lies the primer coat of a painter. “My upbringing was all in visual arts – ever since I was a little kid.†She recalls a childhood spent sitting on the floor of her home, creating crayon copies of her mother’s oil paintings. At age 16 Malán scored her first art exhibit at a small gallery, and even sold a few pieces. “I shifted over to theater, but I’ve always had that connection [to the visual arts],†Malán says. “I love painting. I love getting my hands dirty.†Malán feels a kinship with Kahlo, not merely because of their shared need to express themselves creatively, but because she senses a similar “struggle to be a voice and be known and leave a legacy.†The current incarnation of “FRIDA, un retablo†has struck a particularly personal chord for Malán, as she has begun reassessing her artistic priorities. “I feel like I really am looking back on my life, as I’m playing her looking back on her life,†she says. “I’ve been very invested in this play for a long time. It feels a little bit like my own swan song.†She claims “FRIDA†will be her last turn as a touring actor — “because I’m getting kind of old,†she says with a laugh. “It’s an exhausting job, going out on the road.†Malán has yet to decide if she’s giving up acting altogether, but at a minimum she will be putting that part of her résumé on the back burner. “It’s time to let the new generation take my spot. It’s time to be more of an educator and director and artistic director – and a writer.†She may be seeking a more narrow focus, but Malán says rumors about her retirement and the resulting inquiries about her job at the theatre are way off the mark. “As long as I can stand,†she insists, “I am still here.â€
See “FRIDA, un retablo†at El Centro Milagro, Jan. 10-19. “The Blue House,†an interactive art installation created by Susana Espino that explores the life and work of Frida Kahlo, will be open to the public in the center’s Zócolo space one hour before each show and from 1 p.m. to 8 p.m. on Jan. 19. The exhibit will have a special opening night during the Central Eastside Arts District’s “First Friday†on Jan. 4, 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. The installation will include works by other local artists, as will an exhibit in the theatre lobby. For more information, visit or call 503-236-7253.