Like any kind of writer, playwrights take various paths on their journey to find their voice. And the discovery doesn't stop once they've found it. On some levels, especially the surface ones, Matthew Posey's latest play, Ex Voto: The Immaculate Conceptions of Frida Kahlo, is straightforward. For him, at least.
Now playing at the Ochre House, Ex Voto chronicles the life of iconic Mexican artist Frida Kahlo (played by Elizabeth Evans, who does most of the narrating). Other characters include artist Diego Rivera (Dante Martinez, in a terrific performance and a good physical choice for this part), which whom Kahlo had a famously tumultous marriage, and her beautiful sister Christina (Cyndee Rivera). Rivera, along with core members of the Posey posse (Mitchell Parrack, Trenton Stephenson and Kevin Grammer) play multiple characters, and also puppeteer many of the props, set pieces and even costume changes on and off the stage, bunraku style. Dressed in all black with hooded masks, they're stagehands as graceful, object-manipulating ninjas.
Meanwhile, there's accompanying music and vocals by Justin Locklear ("guitordian," which is to say he plays guitar and accordian), Delilah Buitron (vocalist) and Stefan Gonzalez (percussion). Most of it is original, and credited to "Las Joselitas Muertas" (they also perform the standard "Besame Mucho").
Even with all these elements, which have become part of the performance vocabulary at the Ochre House, the storytelling is oddly normal. And while using that word to describe something from the creatively adventurous Posey might not sound exciting, in many ways, it is.
In truth, much of Posey's work at the Ochre has been pretty linear, even if that line has helix-like curves. But by comparison, this account of Kahlo's story, told chronologically, seems ordinary.
Posey's plays about real-life writers and artistic types (Jean Genet, William S. Burroughs and Hunter S. Thompson) have found a specific incident in the subject's life with which to frame the storytelling. In contrast, Ex Voto hits the biographical and chronological highlights of Kahlo's story, but there is a unifying theme: pain.
Lots of artists are tortured in various ways, and Kahlo wasn't immune to emotional and psychological pain. But she also suffered an inordinate amount of physical pain, from contracting polio as a child, to a traffic accident that left her with back problems, to a miscarriage and a case of gangrene that led to amputation.
Her physical pain and inability to leave her bed for chunks of her career fueled her art, and this is what Posey taps into hauntingly. Many of the bed scenes are done on a vertical bed (the puppeteers stand it upright for these), so that the theater space feels alive even in her immobility.
In several scenes, she's on another kind of bed—a hospital gurney in Detroit—and here's where Posey's wicked sense of humor comes out, as American doctors dish out bawdy jokes, often involving Spanish slang they don't understand, like pinche cabron or pendejo. During the miscarriage scene, they crawl into her uterus as if descending into a haunted basement, and we see their actions and the fetus as shadow puppetry. It's one of Posey's finest coups de théâtre yet.
And then we get a haunting dance by a día de los muertos skeleton, another ingenious feat of bunraku. That's paired with Buitron's singing. Periodically, some of Kahlo's portraits come to life as the actors put their heads into large versions of Kahlo's paintings, self-portraits and retablos (recreated by artist Lucy Kirkman of Rainbow City).
The dialogue isn't as sparkling as we've seen from Posey, and his path from beginning to end is more direct than usual (and could use a trimming), but we still follow it with fascination. A big part of that is Evans' thoughtfully realized portrait of a great artist surviving and creating through the pain.
But a bigger part of it is Posey's knack for theatrical storytelling that's gloriously alive, even if it feels closer to "normal" that what we've seen from him thus far.
◊ Click here to hear Thomas Riccio's recent audio interview with Matthew Posey.
◊ And here for Mark Lowry's Q&A with Matthew Posey.