Kahlo’s Lives, Loves and Leftist Politics

Photo of Odalys Nanin as Frida Kahlo by Chris Hume.

[NOTE: For those unfamiliar with Frida Kahlo’s life, this review may contain plot spoilers.]


If Howard Zinn penned “People’s Histories” and Oliver Stone filmed “Untold Histories,” Latinx playwright Odalys Nanin’s modus operandi is to write (or rewrite?) allegedly biographical plays about famous women revealing their same sex affairs. I previously saw Nanin’s stage exposes purporting that Greta Garbo and Marilyn Monroe indulged in Sappho hanky-panky. Some may regard this as a breakthrough, disclosing the hitherto concealed, unvarnished lesbian truth. Some may react with puritanical disbelief and outrage that their beloved sex goddess has been thusly tarred and defamed. Still others could respond with a collective yawn, musing “that’s so 20th century” and “so what? Who Cares?” Take your pick.


Be that as it may, now the Mexican painter and revolutionary Frida Kahlo is getting the Nanin treatment in Frida, Stroke of Passion starring - you’ll never guess! - Nanin herself, who also, coincidentally, directs. The two-acter takes place in July, 1954 during the last week or so of Frida’s tumultuous, often tortured life. The drama plays out like a sort of fever dream as the tequila swilling, pill popping Frida remembers her many lovers - most of them, but of course, women.


Except, notably, her relations with Mexican Marxist muralist Diego Rivera. As depicted onstage, their relationship was stormy. In fact, in real life they married, divorced and then remarried. Diego and Frida had the kind of romance where the only thing more unbearable for them than being apart was being together, as Stroke dramatizes. Unfortunately, Oscar Basulto’s Diego comes across as a boorish buffoon and looks like Herman Munster.


Among the parade of Frida’s female lovers, my favorite was Celeste Creel as singer/dancer Josephine Baker. Clad in little more than Baker’s celebrated banana skirt, Creel dances a rather sexy Charleston, stealing a show that’s frequently depressing. Of course, to be fair, Frida suffered a terrible accident in her youth and, alas, did not live long, so the subject has an inherent gloominess attached to it.


As is apropos for a production about painters, Nanin’s play has a strongly vivid visual sense, including Marco de Leon’s set, and overhead screens with projections that range from overhead live shots of the stricken Frida lying (and laying) in bed and rather effective evocations of Kahlo’s own artwork. Stroke has some visually magical moments, but unlike those blabbermouth tattletales - uh, I mean “reviewers” - on KPCC radio’s Film Week, I won’t ruin your surprise by divulging them here.


(The latest Film Week plot spoiler was Feb. 14, as the bigmouths revealed on an L.A. NPR station the act that Will Ferrell’s character commits in the just-released Downhill that the movie’s plot hinges on. Happy Valentine’s Day! Recently, to the best of my recollection, Film Week disclosed whether protagonists lived or died - I believe in the war movies A Hidden Life and 1917 - and whether a key character was found innocent or guilty at court - if memory serves correctly in a Just Mercy review. These “critics” leak more than Edward Snowden! If a reviewer is about to unveil a significant plot point, he/she should at least have the courtesy to announce their intention before doing it, so listeners can shut the radio or readers can avoid that passage. Please stop doing this.)


Meanwhile, back at the review:


Stroke makes some eye-opening allegations about the possible implication to some degree of Diego and Frida in the assassination of the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky (Paul Cascante), whom Kahlo romanced. Generally, Diego and Frida have been depicted as Trotsky’s champions, who helped the exiled communist to find refuge in Mexico, provided him with a home and defended the on-the-run onetime Red Army leader, as in Julie Taymor’s 2002 Frida, starring Salma Hayek as Kahlo, Alfred Molina as Rivera and Geoffrey Rush as the doomed Bolshevik.


I don’t know if Nanin’s version of Trotsky’s liquidation is historically accurate or a lot of “bull-shevik.” The playwright told me she did lots of research for her subject matter, but the only source she cited to me re: Trotsky was a Russian TV series about Trotsky that played on Netflix - which has been questioned regarding its historical accuracy, including its dramatization of Trotsky’s murder. I personally don’t know if Nanin’s accusations are correct, but if she has indeed defamed these two great artists by implicating them in the Russian’s elimination it could be called “the SECOND assassination of Trotsky.”


Nanin’s play also explores the strange circumstances of Kahlo’s death, which some may find to be controversial and eyebrow-raising.


Stroke has lots of details about poor Frida’s all-too-short life (her bulb burnt briefly but brightly) - if maybe there’s TMI about her intimate life. Unless a private or public figure (and those he/she has been involved with) has given explicit permission to let it all hang out for the world to gawk at, as titillating as it may be, the efficacy of tell-alls about private lives is a dubious proposition.


But Frida fans (several women attending the premiere wore clothing evocative of the painter who is a cult favorite revered by many) and especially those unfamiliar with Kahlo’s life, art and politics will likely learn a lot from Nani’s play. Although given its substance abuse, simulated sex and semi-nudity, it is probably not suited for children. Nanin’s version onstage and on the page are subject to interpretation and Frida, Stroke of Passion may be a case of “different strokes for different folks.” However, it gave me a new appreciation for Kahlo’s artwork and a desire to experience more of it.


Frida, Stroke of Passion was performed through Feb. 16 at Casa 0101 Theater, 2009 East First St., L.A., CA 90033. For more info:


L.A.-based reviewer/historian Ed Rampell co-authored the third edition of “The Hawaii Movie and Television Book” available at: Rampell recently received a theatre critic award: