Theater Review - Moving pictures

Gateway Performance Productions' Frida: Diego and Me attempts to wed an opposite pair of artistic sensibilities, and it's as stormy a union as the marriage of Mexican painters Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. Kahlo is most famous for her self-portraits, while Gateway is an Atlanta-based, 25-year-old touring company that specializes in mask and mime theater. A workshop production staged at The MASK Center in Little Five Points, Frida: Diego and Me often uses movement to illustrate Kahlo's relationships and insecurities.

Written and directed by Sandra L. Hughes, the play takes place in Kahlo's studio one night in 1940 as she considers remarrying her habitually unfaithful husband, Mexican muralist Diego Rivera. Kahlo (John Jaramillo) imagines conversations with her estranged husband, her sister (one of Rivera's mistresses) and members of the press, represented by the audience.

Dancer Jerilynn Bedingfield portrays the show's other roles almost entirely without dialogue, and dons stylized masks for some of them. When Kahlo wrestles with her own impulses toward self-expression and self-destruction, Bedingfield appears as another Kahlo, holding scissors and a paintbrush and wearing a skull mask. Even more surreal is Bedingfield's costume as the corpulent Rivera, consisting of overalls and an expressive frog mask. At one point Rivera, displaying a froggy kind of charisma, takes the stage alone to flirt and pretend to paint an audience member.

Such moments prove memorably dreamlike but can't compensate for the sheer strangeness of casting Jaramillo as Kahlo. Jaramillo demonstrates some truly impressive flamenco dancing late in the play, but when he tries to convey Kahlo's passionate nature, he seems simply campy, like a hot-blooded Almodovar drag queen. Perhaps Hughes wants to highlight Kahlo's own interest in cross-dressing and bisexuality, or touch on the idea that gender roles can themselves be masks. But having a male actor play Frida Kahlo ultimately obstructs the audience's view of Hughes' portrait of the artist

Friday: Diego and Me plays through Nov. 2 at The MASK Center in the Little Five Points Community Center, 1083 Austin Ave. Sat. at 8 p.m.; Sun. at 4:30 p.m. $10. 404-982-9922. www.masktheatre.org