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Regional Reviews: Albuquerque/Santa Fe

Revolution and Romance Vie in Trotsky & Frida
The Harlen Group / Camino Real Productions
Review by Stephanie Hainsfurther


Ama Zathura and Peter Shea Kierst
Photo Courtesy of Camino Real Productions
Above the doorway leading from Frida Kahlo's La Casa Azul to her husband Diego Rivera's house, there is an inscription: Dolor, placer y muerte no son mas que un transcurso de la existencia. It means Pain, pleasure and death are no more than a course of life. It's a philosophy few of us feel brave enough to embrace each day.

Playwright Leonard Koel's Frida (Ama Zathura), in pain for most of her life and deeply immersed in her pleasures (Diego, affairs, and alcohol), embodies that saying with a shrug of her shoulder. In Trotsky & Frida, currently in a premiere production at North Fourth St. Theater and Art Center, Koel takes an imagined look at the romantic conflict and revolutionary views of four famous comrades and housemates.

After Vladimir Lenin's death in 1924, his second-in-command, Leon Trotsky, tried to consolidate power but instead was pushed out of his government positions, and eventually exiled, by Joseph Stalin. After brief stays in Turkey, France and Norway, Trotsky and his wife Natalia Sedova arrived in Mexico. Sympathizers Frida and Diego took them in as guests at La Casa Azul in 1937. Sometime during this cohabitation, Frida and Trotsky had an affair.

As played by Peter Shea Kierst, Trotsky is a pedantic theorist whose my-way-or-the-highway Marxist views are countered by Frida and Diego's (Miguel Martinez) practical activism. Trotsky and his wife (Ninette Mordaunt) set out immediately to instruct their hosts in the finer points of Russian Communism. Conflicts ensue, around which Koel has crafted a strong first act.

The dialog, not pedantic at all but fiery and real, isn't always about politics. When it is, the veteran cast makes certain we're not lectured to.

Easy-going, flirtatious Frida is the hot center of the drama surrounding the Trotskys' stay. Her sensuous way of walking, talking, and drinking from the bottle shocks Trotsky and Natalia. Zathura is a natural in what must have been an intimidating role, given Frida's emblematic status among New Mexico artists and art lovers. She draws the audience with her realistic performance.

Martinez is a fine and feisty Diego Rivera, albeit slimmer and better looking. From the moment he enters, crowding the women on the banco while he gazes into Natalia's eyes, Martinez delivers Rivera's philandering, famous-painter personality. The legend lives.

Mordaunt plays Natalia as an uptight and long-suffering wife, laser-focused on reinforcing her husband's idealism and image. Natalia's unrelievedly gray wardrobe (by costume designer Kathy Gomez) marks a chilly contrast to Frida's fire. Her initial reactions to Frida's excesses are adorable and funny. It is a gracious actor who allows the audience to laugh at her.

This play is more about relationships than revolution and so Kierst lets us in on a human side of Trotsky we might not have suspected. He is by turns dictatorial, charmed and charming, manly and romantic in the kiss scene with Frida. When he spouts Trotsky's most famous lines (such as The end may justify the means as long as there is something that justifies the end.), it sounds fresh and heartfelt. His affinity for Frida's rabbits, which could have been comically played, instead shows us a soul longing for healing and rest.

Along with an accomplished cast, Director Harry Zimmerman has a colorful, large set (by Valeria Rios-Giermakowski) to work with and he deploys every inch in this multimedia production. Music and sound design by Casey Mraz adds to the revolutionary ambience, especially when the players launch a cappella into "The Internationale" or "Peat Bog Soldiers."

Produced by The Harlen Group in association with Camino Real Productions, Trotsky & Frida is a professional production and a world premiere.

Trotsky & Frida, through November 15, 2015, at N4th Theatre, 4904 4th St NW, Albuquerque, (505) 344-4542, Fri.-Sat. 7:30 p.m.; Sun. 2 p.m. Tickets: $20 General; $18 Students & Seniors (65+) at www.vsartsnm.org.


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