Sitting on Priscilla Lopez's mantle is the 1980 Tony Award for her performance as Harpo Marx in A Day in Hollywood/A Night in the Ukraine. On top of the award, "sitting like a little top hat" is her Harpo head gear. Behind it -- like a diploma, she jokes -- she keeps the Tony nomination for Morales in A Chorus Line. She laughs as she calls the set up "the little shrine in the corner."
Perhaps in 2000 she will be able to add an Obie to the mantle. Lopez has returned to the New York stage to reprise her role as Mexican painter Frida Kahlo in Dolores C. Sendler's The Passion of Frida Kahlo, running uptown at the ArcLight Theatre. Lopez began her stint with the play in the summer of 1999 at The Directors Company, where the drama played under its original title, Goodbye, My Friduchita.
Passion blends dance, music, projections and drama into the life story of painter Kahlo. Kahlo, who married fellow artist, the muralist Diego Rivera, carried on affairs with men and women, favored communism and suffered with her own demons. A streetcar accident left her in terrible pain for great sections of her life, and she spent her last several years bedridden with illness.
The show opened Nov. 4 after previews beginning Oct. 25. Michael John Garces (Dreaming in Cuban) directs this production as he did with the Friduchita.
Drawn to the piece by "a need to work...an actor needs to act" (paraphrasing that famous Chorus Line number, "The Music and The Mirror"), Lopez found the piece intriguing. "There were definitely things in the piece that sucked me in. I couldn't identify at the moment what it was; it was just a general feeling of `Wow.' It was terrifying, too. A lead role in this very poetic, different language than I'm used to speaking in -- and she talks a lot! I was terrified, but I wanted to do it because I was drawn in and an actor needs to act," she said.
Nightly, Lopez runs a gamut of anguish from emotional suffering to physical pain. While some of these moments are shared with Mexican actress Anilu Pardo, who portrays Young Frida, most of the intense pain from Kahlo's miscarriage to her death throes belongs to Lopez.
Despite the workout, Lopez never feels exhausted after a performance. Instead, the "Frida Hangover" comes the next morning. She said, "I feel it in the morning. It's like when you've been drinking at night. You don't feel it when you've been drinking, but when you wake up in the morning, you go, 'Oh, I drank too much!'"
Still, all that energy she puts into the character is what Lopez likes about playing Kahlo. An outspoken woman who lived life to the fullest, taking lovers, swilling tequila and smoking cigarettes, even as her body fell apart, Kahlo requires an almost over-the-top approach.
"That's what so nice about playing her, you can just go all out...It's nice to be able to be big. I've always felt big inside, like I have to control things. This is great, because I can be big and not worry about it," she said.
Lopez hopes audiences will leave the theatre with an understanding of Frida Kahlo's passion for life. "I love that it's called The Passion of Frida Kahlo now because that's what it really is. Her passion for everything, mostly split up between Diego Rivera and her art. But she was passionate about everything."
As for Kahlo's art itself, the myriad self-portraits and other paintings of Kahlo are on display in The Passion of Frida Kahlo at the ArcLight Theatre.
Lopez's favorite painting is featured in the show, one of the artist's series of self-portraits with monkeys. What distinguishes it from other self portraits is the necklace of thorns around the artist's neck.
"I love that painting. The work is so beautiful and she's so beautiful and serene. But it's so strange with those monkeys," she said.
Tickets ($45) to The Passion of Frida Kahlo are available by calling (212) 307-4100.
-- By Christine Ehren & David Lefkowitz