Sylvia Plath once got blazed with Frida Kahlo. This is the setting of Musas, a Water People Theater production at the New York International Fringe Festival that invites us to be a fly on the wall and listen in on these women’s conversations as they smoke, eat, play, and work.
There is no historical record of this fated meeting. Truth be told, it never actually happened. Born 25 years apart, the pair never met in real life; Kahlo died when Plath was 22. But “fiction” isn’t a dirty word. Playwright Néstor Caballero wields poetic license imaginatively as these two luminaries’ worlds collide.
Frida Kahlo wryly tells Sylvia Plath at one point: “Death is your thing. You are like a Mexican.” The bite in the joke is Plath’s suicide at 30 in 1963, cutting short her career as a poet. Beleaguered by bipolar disorder — which electroshock therapy exacerbated instead of relieved — Plath’s mind could be a dark place. Nevertheless, her poems strike like lightning. Plath became the first author to win the Pulitzer Prize posthumously, in 1982. In Musas, Mónica Steuer masterfully oscillates between manic joy and crushing despair in her monologues and interactions with Frida Kahlo.
“Sadness pisses me off!” Kahlo exclaims in another scene. She was no stranger to pain either. A bus accident at 18 broke her spine, collarbone, ribs, and pelvis, damaging her lower extremities as well. After having had an iron handrail pierce through her abdomen and uterus, she spent three months in a full body cast recovering. Although she miraculously survived and lived on to 47, Kahlo frequently lapsed into episodes of overwhelming and searing pain. She did her utmost to focus her mind on more beautiful things. The twists on Rebeca Aléman’s face artfully capture how physical pain was Kahlo’s constant companion. Aléman’s wide, warm smiles convey Kahlo’s zest for finding sensual and artistic pleasures in spite of the pain.
In Musas, Frida Kahlo tries to palliate Sylvia Plath’s mental turmoil. They smoke a blunt and chat over wine. Plath hits a piñata, set up by Kahlo, to release her rage. Plath returns the favor by offering Kahlo support in her own way, offering Kahlo a cushion for her leg and foot pain, and playing along with some of Kahlo’s outlandish games, like strategically spilling red wine and ground pepper on a place mat to create a gastronomic exquisite corpse. Kahlo is constantly trying to take her mind off of her physical pain by engaging Plath. Plath is constantly trying to take her mind off her mental pain by playing with Kahlo.
In some of the funniest moments in the play, Kahlo expresses bewilderment at Plath’s words, making this “I don’t know what you mean” face at Plath. For instance, Plath expresses admiration for Kahlo, telling her she is like saxophone music or like the moon. Anyone who is friends with a poet knows what it’s like to appreciate the wit but have no idea what the hell it actually means.
Kahlo and Plath’s conversations explore the many binaries and polarities that differentiate the two artists. One scene compares the virtues of painting and poetry. Another dialogue contrasts Plath’s raging disapproval of her husband’s cheating with Kahlo’s resignation to marriage as a comedy of carnal errors. The script carefully avoids essentializing race and gender: without abstractly talking about the deeper meaning of what it means to be a woman, Kahlo and Plath’s anecdotes and witty asides give a glimpse into the challenges these early 20th century luminaries, who happened to be women, encountered. Finally, both women talk about their pain — whether mental or physical — and how their art sublimates that suffering into aesthetic ecstasy.
Some of the tensest moments in the play are when the actresses dramatize this anguish. Frida Kahlo writhes in pain on a bed. At moments, Plath screams loudly and gets delusional with an ouija board, convinced she is communing with the spirit of poet William Butler Yeats.
Chicago theater critics were too harsh on this imaginative play when it premiered in the second city last year. While Joy Campbell and Jack Helbig rightly applauded the acting of Aléman and Steuer, the critics’ contentions that Caballero’s script was cryptic and incoherent are debatable.
It’s not cryptic. Perhaps, sly references — such as when Frida Kahlo gives Sylvia Plath a bell jar (the name of Plath’s only novel) — might fly over the head of some audience members. But armed with 15 minutes of reading the Chicago Poetry Foundation’s webpage on Plath before the play, I took away plenty. Why do critics seldom complain when plays make obscure biographical references to the lives of significant male artists?
The play is not incoherent. While it unfolds non-linearly, Musas holds up as a series of dream sequences. The dreamy vignettes echo Kahlo’s surrealistic painting and Plath’s literary style with its numerous visual sketches. Because surreally discombobulated images are a motif in both artists’ work, this structure does them justice. Some of us — as viewers — are proud of our ability to digest nonlinear dream-like content in performance art and theater. Director Iraida Tapias deserves credit for weaving all of the scenes together so seamlessly.
The real Frida Kahlo once quipped: “I tried to drown my sorrows, but the bastards learned how to swim, and now I am overwhelmed by this decent and good feeling.” By embracing pain as a theme instead of running away from it, this play’s conversation between Kahlo and Plath leaves you with a decent and good feeling about how your own pain can feed your creativity.
Musas, produced by the Water People Theatre, is playing at the New York International Fringe Festival at the Steve and Marie Sgouros Theatre (115 MacDougal Street, Third Floor, West Village, Manhattan) on Tuesday, August 18 at 4:45pm; Wednesday, August 19 at 7pm; and Thursday, August 20 at 4:45pm. Tickets are available via FringeNYC.