Theater archives

On Governors Island, “A Ribbon About a Bomb” Probes the Pain Behind Frida Kahlo’s Art


Mexican painter Frida Kahlo suffered greatly — childhood polio, shattered pelvic bone as a teenager, chronic ill health before death at forty-seven — but it all fed her art. In her surrealist self-portraits, she bleeds on an airborne hospital bed or endures being force-fed pulped fish and chicken through an enormous funnel. Roots twine through her hollowed-out torso or stickpins quiver along her arms. A site-specific show inspired (mostly) by Kahlo should be painful — physically and maybe aesthetically. But must it hurt this much? Schlepping to Governors Island and being hustled through a hot, creaky two-story building as actors babble about art and life, one staggers back into the sunlight ready to quote the last words from Kahlo’s diary: “I hope for a happy exit and I hope never to come back.”

A Ribbon About a Bomb (named after André Breton’s assessment of Kahlo’s style) is clearly a labor of love by the Exquisite Corpse Company, led by director-designer Tess Howsam. As the name of the troupe suggests, the script was outsourced to ten writers, who presumably didn’t read any scenes but the one preceding theirs. The result is, naturally, episodic and disjointed. Howsam stages each vignette in a specially designed room/installation. From the get-go, the audience is separated into two groups that explore different aspects of Frida’s life and legacy (with some overlapping monologues). I was on the “funeral track,” which began at Kahlo’s wake: coffin center stage and the artist (Sara Ornelas) in toreador drag, serenading us on guitar. (The other path, the “wedding track,” focuses on her marriage to Diego Rivera.) We progress to various stylized rooms: Astroturf, tiny chairs, and mannequin busts; kitchen filled with dangling teaspoon mobiles; a black-painted, dimly lit space, Kahlo scrawling in chalk on the floor. Between biographical non sequiturs about Kahlo’s art, ailments, and tempestuous marriage, we hear from two of her contemporaries, English magical realist Leonora Carrington (Blaire O’Leary) and Spanish-born surrealist Remedios Varo (Andrea Lopez), both also female artists who found a home in Mexico City. (In the “wedding track,” different actors appear in the roles of Kahlo, Carrington, and Varo.)

By design or default, the triple portrait is imbalanced. Kahlo gets most of the manifesto-like speeches, with Carrington and Varo relegated to the role of glorified backup singers and concerned/jealous friends. In the second-floor segments, each finally gets a monologue. O’Leary’s barking-mad Carrington invites us to a confab under her skirts, literally — her comically huge dress lifts like a circus tent. In a nearby room whose walls are papered with pages torn from telephone books, Lopez’s Varo stabs at a phone book and grumbles about feeling like a ghost, a lost chapter in history.

Since these women turned in close social circles (Kahlo dismissed Carrington and Varo and their associates as “those European bitches”), a lively women-centric drama could have been written about their contiguous struggles. But this isn’t a play as much as a hallucinatory, scattershot homage, with songs and audience interaction. For an immersion in Kahlo’s world, one might just prefer a well-curated retrospective of her works. Ornelas is the most compelling performer, exuding fervent intensity and gender-blurring sexual appeal. Otherwise, there’s a lot of overacting and, in the text, strenuously ecstatic blather. I enjoyed the colorful ribbons, but kept waiting for an explosion.

A Ribbon About a Bomb
House 407B
Governors Island
Through October 1