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La Casa Azul

Sophie Faucher as an authentically eyebrowed Frida Kahlo in La Casa Azul, at the Mondavi Center this weekend only.

Sophie Faucher as an authentically eyebrowed Frida Kahlo in La Casa Azul, at the Mondavi Center this weekend only.

Rated 4.0

Canadian artist Robert Lepage isn’t a household name, but he has an awesome reputation. Lepage has done Shakespeare in London, he’s directed two Peter Gabriel tours, he’s consulting with Cirque du Soleil, and he’s also working on Lorin Maazel’s upcoming opera, 1984.

Lepage visited California in 2001 with a show titled The Far Side of the Moon, which he wrote and in which he performed. It blew away almost everyone, including myself. (The San Francisco Chronicle picked it as the year’s best theater work, to the vexation of local companies.)

Now we have La Casa Azul, which Lepage directs from a script by Sophie Faucher, who is also in the cast. The topic is Frida Kahlo, including her marriage to muralist Diego Rivera; her affair with Leon Trotsky; her years of pain and repeated surgeries, stemming from a horrific bus accident; and her struggle to achieve recognition as a painter in her own right.

Lepage, noted for his visual flare and powerful stagecraft, presents the play in cinematic fashion. A scrim is hung at mid-stage, at times used for projections displaying Rivera’s murals at life size or for an enormous blow-up of a letter. Smaller images of Kahlo’s many self-portraits also hang in the air.

At other times, the scrim is nearly invisible gauze, giving the action taking place behind a sort of dreamlike feel. There are also moving panels farther back, which Lepage uses to frame a few scenes. The intricate lighting creates little pools of illumination on a basically dark stage throughout.

Lepage deploys relatively simple props, which he visually transforms again and again by tilting or angling them so that they appear as new shapes. He also incorporates marionettes and hand puppets. The stage crew is much bigger than the cast. The stream of imagery is breathtaking and beautifully layered; La Casa Azul runs barely 90 minutes with no intermission, but it feels like a longer show because there’s so much going on.

Lepage’s direction is easily the most compelling reason to attend. Kahlo has been the subject of many recent books, exhibits and a film; Faucher’s script sheds little new light, and the writing, based on Kahlo’s own, sometimes seems overwrought. The acting (Faucher, portly Patric Saucier and Lise Roy) is quite good.