Circa Two, Circa Theatre, 1 Taranaki St, Waterfront, Wellington

25/06/2016 - 23/07/2016

Production Details

Experience Frida Kahlo’s world on stage at Wellington’s Circa Theatre  

Frida Kahlo is one of the most iconic artists of the twentieth century. She had a unique way of seeing the world and her paintings resonate with symbols of physical pain, strength and courage.  For the first time in New Zealand her story will be told on stage at Wellington’s Circa Theatre from 25 June to 23 July in the play LA CASA AZUL – inspired by the writings of Frida Kahlo.

Director Lyndee-Jane Rutherford says, “The play is a mixture of the colourful and the emotional, just like Frida Kahlo herself.  We’re shown the deep emotional journey she experienced throughout her life, with her polio, a horrific bus accident, a miscarriage and of course the torrid marriage to Diego Rivera.  Frida Kahlo laid out all of these experiences and feelings in her paintings.  My aim for our production is to draw on what I do best, alongside my talented designers Ian Harman and Jen Lal, to create the story of Frida’s life with colour, magic, mask, puppetry, dance and of course icons of Mexico and motifs from her work.” 

The production stars award-winning actress Kali Kopae (Actress of the Year 2015, Wellington Theatre Awards) as Frida Kahlo and Bronwyn Turei (TV2’s Go Girls) in her first stage role in Wellington. Bronwyn is playing Frida’s sister Christina and a myriad other characters from Frida’s world. Gavin Rutherford plays renowned Mexican artist and Frida’s husband Diego Rivera. Using mask, puppetry, song and projection, Frida’s unique world will be bought to vivid life. 

“It is exciting to have Kali Kopae in the role of Frida,” says Lyndee-Jane Rutherford. “She’s shining and bringing the icon that is Frida to vivid life.  Kali won Actress of the Year last year for her incredible performance in Not in our Neighbourhood.  Kali’s audition gave me the necessary shivers up the spine, convincing me that she will be an incredible Frida Kahlo. Then to match her with the incredible talents of Bronwyn Turei and Gavin Rutherford, we’ve got a powerhouse production that I’m so proud of.”

The play is named after La Casa Azul (The Blue House), Kahlo’s birthplace in Mexico, where she lived with husband artist Diego Rivera and where she died in 1954. La Casa Azul is now a museum devoted to celebrating Frida Kahlo. Lyndee-Jane, Kali and designer Ian Harman recently met with the museum director, Hilda Trujillo, at the opening of the Frida Kahlo photographic exhibition at Te Manawa in Palmerston North. “Hilda Trujillo was excited and unbelievably supportive about our upcoming production,” says Lyndee-Jane. “She told me secrets about Frida Kahlo. I was able to ask her things only someone like Hilda would know about Frida. She understood what I was doing with the production and gave me the confidence that Frida Kahlo would support and believe in what my team and I are going to create.  She got that I too am an artist.”  

The play was originally directed by Festival favourite Robert Lepage (The Far Side of the Moon, Seven Streams of the River Ota). Lyndee-Jane Rutherford and award-winning designer Ian Harman (Midsummer, Edwin Drood, Ache, winner of both Set Design and Costume categories at the 2015 Wellington Theatre Awards) will put their spin on this exquisite piece of theatre, inspired by the writing and drawings featured in Kahlo’s Intimate Diary.  Historical events are overlaid with her paintings. Documentary texts are used alongside her most personal diary entries. Images flourish where words alone cannot convey the sheer strangeness and intensity of her life.

LA CASA AZUL – Inspired by the writings of Frida Kahlo 
Circa Theatre
1 Taranaki Street, Wellington
25 June to 23 July 2016
Preview 24 June
Tue-Sat 7.30pm; Sun 4.30pm
Bookings: | ph 04 801 7992  

Frida Kahlo:  Kali Kopae
Diego Rivera:  Gavin Rutherford
La Pelona, Tina Modotti, Cristina Kahlo, Leon Trotsky, an Office Worker, a Russian Nurse:  Bronwyn Turei 

Set and Costume Design:  Ian Harman
Lighting Design:  Jennifer Lal
Sound Design:  Emi Pogoni and Lyndee-Jane Rutherford
AV Design:  John Strang, Dusk  

Director - Lyndee-Jane Rutherford
Set & Costume Design - Ian Harman
Lighting Design - Jennifer Lal
AV Design - John Strang, Dusk
Sound Design - Emi Pogoni & Lyndee-Jane Rutherford
Stage Manager & Technical Operator - Deb McGuire
Set Builder - John Hodgkins
Cultural Advisor & Accent Coach - Evelyn Santana Paz 

Theatre ,

Captured beautifully

Review by Ewen Coleman 27th Jun 2016

Many know the paintings of Frida Kahlo and murals of her husband Diego Rivera, both famous within their native country of Mexico and outside. 

But Kahlo the person is just as fascinating as her paintings, which is what Sophie Faucher’s play La Casa Azul, translated by Neil Bartlett and currently playing at Circa Theatre, is all about.

Known as a naive folk artist, predominately of brightly coloured self-portraits, the play is presented not too dissimilar to a collage of her paintings, showing snippets of Frida and her tempestuous relationship with Diego Rivera, all taken from her writings. [More]


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A rich vicarious experience

Review by John Smythe 26th Jun 2016

What a richly insightful play and production this is: impeccably cast, designed and directed. All the creative components play off and with each other to draw us into this subjective exploration of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo’s world, inspired by Kahlo’s ‘Intimate Diary’ (plus letters, postcards and other documents) and written by Quebecois playwright and actress Sophie Faucher.

It was Faucher’s short radio play that attracted the interest of director Robert Lepage, who worked with her – as playwright and in the role of Frida – to develop it as a stage play. Their La Casa Azul, translated into English by Neil Bartlett, opened in London in 2002.[i] It needs to be noted that while it was ‘lo-tech’ by Lapage standards, this Circa production of that script, created with a fraction of their budget, is even more so, which throws the focus on the actors and text – and that’s just fine, given this director, cast and the designers that serve them. (Lizzie Loveridge’s Curtain Up London review of the 2002 production mentions some extraordinary effects and goes so far as to say “The visual strength of this play is also its weakness.”[ii])

Most of Frida Kahlo’s paintings are self-portraits. “I paint myself because I am so often alone and because I am the subject I know best,” she said.[iii] Born on the outskirts of Mexico City, in the blue house (la casa azul) she lived in most of her life, she contracted polio (aged six) then 12 years later sustained severe injuries when a bus she was in collided with a trolley car. Both events, plus living with the subsequent pain and coping with ongoing health issues, underpinned her sense of isolation.

This is what I recall as, in our seats pre-show, we hear a soft voice speaking in Spanish (I assume it is a museum guide) and see elements of Ian Harman’s simple set design glow and fade. Everything – the pillow on the hospital bed; the painting work-station at which a wheelchair is parked; the very ordinary wooden wardrobe – becomes a work of art when isolated this way.

Jennifer Lal’s overall lighting design is a work of art too, as is Emi Pogoni and Lyndee-Jane Rutherford’s sound design and John Strang’s AV design. Having breathed life into the space before the show-proper begins, their work continues to pulsate throughout.

It’s a low-key start. Kali Kopae arrives as herself, explores the space like a fascinated visitor to La Casa Azul museum and inexorably metamorphoses into the persona of Frida Kahlo, giggling as she draws in the iconic mono-brow; reading Frida’s notes about colours and what we associate with them …

Revolution is referenced (although she was actually three by then, Kahlo claimed she was born when the Mexican Revolution began, in 1910) but Frida declares the “real revolution” began when she met the famous mural artist Diego Rivera. The scene where she brings her art work for honest appraisal to Diego – perfectly pitched by Gavin Rutherford – is the first of many that variously simmer, sizzle, burn and explode with the full colour-palette of emotions. 

Kopae embodies Kahlo completely, most impressively with her spirited rising above the pervasive pain and physical limitations. The way she tells Diego about the bus accident and how she was injured epitomises that spirit. Then later, when the reality of what she has laughed off brings about a miscarriage, the authenticity of the experience is as powerful a moment as you may hope to experience in live theatre. It’s hard to imagine anyone else owning this role more convincingly. 

Similarly Diego has a solo scene entitled ‘Russian Roulette’ that is hugely dramatic because we are right there in the moment with him. Such calls on our capacity to empathise only increase the value of the times we are compelled to assess more objectively the less savoury aspects of Diego’s behaviour and Frida’s relationship with him.

Six other roles are played with consummate skill by Bronwyn Turei, including a beautifully nuanced Cristina Kahlo, Frida’s sister. The others employ cleverly-crafted paper masks, including Tina Modotti, “Italian photographer, model, actress, revolutionary political activist, and friend and lover to both Diego and Frida” (did she really share their wedding night bed with them?) and Leon Trotsky, with whom Frida has an affair.

The Registry Office worker is deliciously comical in her responses to the contract Frida and Diego have negotiated for their second marriage. But Turei’s most pervasive character is La Pelona, a personification of Death whose mask adorns a skull with fiesta flowers. Frida’s line, “I spent my whole life dying,” fully justifies La Pelona’s omnipresence. Their final scene together brings the play to a potent conclusion – and we are reminded this has all been one woman’s subjective response to the phenomenon of Frida Kahlo.

Harman’s costumes, props and masks enhance and enrich the action throughout, along with the other design elements. There is as much to see and think about in this production as there is in a Kahlo painting.

So as a play, what is La Casa Azul about that’s bigger than itself? The purpose of art, perhaps? Diego declares, “All art is propaganda – but for what?” then claims it is an essential part of all human existence and must therefore belong (be accessible to?) to all of humanity. Only those who share in the suffering of all humanity and take up arms against the oppressors may call themselves artists, he asserts. 

It’s arguable that Frida suffers more than the self-serving, libidinous Diego, and she certainly ‘takes up arms’ against the pain that could well have oppressed her, by producing vibrant works of art. Yet she says towards the end of the play, as she prepares to attend the opening of her final exhibition, “I’ve spent my whole life standing in the shadow of a genius. Fine, that’s the way things had to be; that was my proper place. So tell me, why after all these years are they so interested in my work? I took my tears and turned them into paintings. That’s it! Tonight everyone will finally see that there is actually nothing to see!”

But whose works have endured? A combined exhibition of their works has just opened in Sydney and it is Frida’s paintings that are being used to promote it. Perhaps there is something in Frida’s story, and in her view of herself, that speaks to the experiences and perceptions of all women artists; of women in general in a persistently male-dominated world. 

Whichever way you look at it, La Casa Azuloffers a rich vicarious experience and plenty to ponder in its wake.


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