Review: ‘Frida’ Entwines Performer and Artist on Journeys of Self-Discovery

Vanessa Severo’s Solo Show Concludes Pittsburgh Public Theater Season


Experiencing Vanessa Severo’s indelible portrayal of the artist Frida Kahlo, be prepared to be swept away on a journey grounded in historical truths, yet soaring on wings of imagination.

Presented by Pittsburgh Public Theater as the company’s season finale, Frida … A Self Portrait reminds us that discovering a kindred spirit can be a path to self-discovery. In Severo’s case, that has meant using her skill and insight to don the mantle of that special someone.

Vanessa Severo as Frida Kahlo in Frida … A Self Portrait, at Pittsburgh Public Theater (Images: Michael Henninger)

That’s the feeling I got watching the transformation of Severo, in a portrait of the artist that stands among the elite of solo theatrical works.

So much about this solo tour de force is about keeping it real, it is worth noting that its launchpoint has not stood the test of time. It started with a quote attributed as a Kahlo diary entry:

I used to think I was the strangest person in the world but then I thought there are so many people in the world, there must be someone just like me who feels bizarre and flawed in the same ways I do. I would imagine her, and imagine that she must be out there thinking of me, too.”

That quote has recently come into question as Kahlo’s. Yet reading it, as if it were gospel, sent Severo on a journey that led her to other truths about the protofeminist Mexican artist of the early 20th century and herself,  the explorative 21st-century storyteller holding court at the O’Reilly Theater.

The journey begins with Brazilian-American writer-performer Severo, as herself, engaging the audience and drawing attention to the things that bind her to Kahlo. She then fills in a gap by using makeup to establish the artist’s well-known unibrow – and the transformation is nearly complete.

Through language, movement and stagecraft, Severo first becomes the bedridden Kahlo, nearing the end of her tortuous life, being interviewed about the architecture of her Mexico City home, Casa Azul (now Museo Frida Kahlo).

Severo’s Kahlo is challenging, defiant and constantly given over to bouts of excruciating pain and a morphine-induced state, somewhere between dreaminess and clarity.

Under the direction of Joanie Schultz, and in an enticingly packed 1 hour and 20 minutes, Severo imparts and entwines revelations about herself and Kahlo. The artist’s story is given space to move through most of the important plot points of her life, ignoring her historical place as an avowed Marxist but emphasizing her as a survivor who did not shy from uneasy truths.

Vanessa Severo as Frida Kahlo

In a powerful aside, Severo shares a compelling and gruesome story about the medical profession and her own individual circumstance that helps to further bind her to Kahlo’s own journey … 

Journey is one of those words that gets tossed around a lot, when speaking of moments that add up to a lifetime. In the case of Frida, there is a literal journey as well. It starts with that quote about someone “who feels bizarre and flawed in the same ways I do,” launching Severo’s pursuit of that other person, concluding in a visit to Casa Azul. 

As Frida, Severo incorporates balletic movement and vocal dexterity while shifting among characters. It’s intriguing how much of the show is crafted as a surrealistic portrayal of people and places, when Kahlo herself always insisted that she was not a surrealist painter, but a realist.

If you know anything of the artist, you know of the physical pain that wracked her body throughout her life – starting with polio as a child, and then a horrific bus accident as a teenager. Both are portrayed by Severo in visceral scenes. 

Left alone, bedridden and in pain, for years at a time, Kahlo painted what she knew – herself – leaving us with dozens of self-portraits that speak to her will to create.

Of course, you can read all about those aspects of the artist’s life in countless biographies and see her works in museums worldwide. 

By using the power of creative storytelling, Severo yanks Kahlo off the canvas and breathes life into her anew. It is telling that not one of Kahlo’s actual artworks is seen during the show. Rather, it’s Severo, inside an empty frame or in a familiar pose that we immediately recognize as both the artist and a work of art.

The O’Reilly’s thrust stage is rendered, through lighting and practical effects, in the shape of a giant, four-poster bed with headboard backdrop – the land of counterpane that was Kahlo’s. It is topped not with a canopy, but what looks like a keyhole-shaped skylight – a door to the outer world that often was closed to a woman, or someone with broken bones that would never recover their strength.

Clotheslines stretch across the stage, holding different outfits that represent Frida‘s Mexican heritage and self portraits, her gruff German father, the doctors who saved and prodded her and many more.

Vanessa Severo’s clever uses of costumes play a big role in Frida … A Self Portrait.

To say that she makes clever use of costumes is a vast understatement. You might doubt your eyes that she is not alone when you see Severo wrapped in a suit that represents her unfaithful brute of a husband, the famed Mexican muralist Diego Rivera

To say that the lighting represents time and space and mood is likewise not to do justice to how they tie together scenes and characters, allowing Severo to manifest her internalized connection to Kahlo.

When finally Severo reaches the end of the journey, it is both revelatory and a nod to hidden truths. There is just so much we can know about someone else – even someone such as Frida Kahlo, whose fame has grown exponentially since her death, at age 47, in 1954. 

And that’s for the best. Severo’s point is not to simply discover all there is to know about the artist. She leaves us with our own possibilities of self-discovery. Frida … A Self Portrait is, in a way, like visiting a gallery of Kahlo’s portraits, delving into the insights offered by the exhibitors, and then deciding how we relate to the works, and what it reveals about each of us. 


Frida … A Self Portrait is presented by Pittsburgh Public Theater at the O’Reilly Theater, Downtown, through June 25. For tickets, call 412-316-1600 or visit https://ppt.org/production/78806/frida-dot-dot-dot-a-self-portrait.

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