Playwright / Actress Embodies The Artist Frida Kahlo

July 16, 2006|By MARY CAROLE MCCAULEY | MARY CAROLE MCCAULEY,SUN REPORTER

Playwrights just hate it when actors mess with their precious words. And actors moan that playwrights don't always write dialogue that trips easily off the tongue.

So Marian Licha, who is both the primary author and sole performer of Frida Vice-Versa, has had some interesting conversations with herself.

"There are times when I'm rehearsing Frida and I'll stop and say, 'What could that playwright have been thinking?' " Licha jokes.

"Then I'll ask my director, Jennifer Lefkow, if the playwright would consider changing some of the lines. And Jennifer will say, 'I'll have to ask her and get back to you.' "

Licha immerses herself so completely in whatever role she happens to be playing at any given moment, she is so passionate and focused and intense, her right hand seems capable of debating with her left. And for the past three years, her obsession has been a solo show about the great Mexican painter, Frida Kahlo.

The Puerto Rico-born Licha has long, slender bones and is taller than the diminutive Kahlo. Nor does the elegant actress have the famously thick eyebrows that nearly formed nearly a straight black line across Kahlo's forehead.

But when Licha's chin tilts regally and her eyes flash, you instinctively inhale and push yourself back in your chair, as if to occupy as little space as possible. It's the effect that Kahlo herself must have had on the students at the La Esmerelda School of Art in Mexico City, where Kahlo taught for a time and where the show is set.

Early in Frida Vice-Versa, Kahlo pronounces grandly in her salsa-flavored accent: "I can't teach Art. I can only teach life."

And you believe her.

Licha's own life may not have been as turbulent as Kahlo's -- which includes two near-death experiences and two turbulent marriages to the same man, the painter Diego Rivera -- but it certainly is a full one.

"As a kid, I always knew I wanted to be an actor," says the 48-year-old Licha, who nabbed her first professional roles at age 16 while performing operettas in her native land.

But Licha also always wanted to be an author. She was bored in history class, so she started writing plays and submitting them to her teacher instead of the expected essays.

Granted, the plays neatly sidestepped the whole point of history, which insists on sticking to the factual and verifiable. But the girl's re-imagining of her homework assignment showed initiative and had undeniable flair.

In the mid-1970s, Licha moved to the U.S., and enrolled at George Washington University, where she studied theater.

After graduation, she spent eight years in New York, where she studied at the Lee Strasberg Institute and performed off-Broadway.

In 1988, she fell in love with a Czech businessman named Jan Dvorak, and moved to the Washington area. The couple has two teenaged daughters and live in Silver Spring.

To Licha's relief, her career has continued to flourish.

She recently appeared as Ofelia, the mother, in Arena Stage's production of Nilo Cruz' Anna In The Tropics. And Horizons Theatre recently commissioned a new play about the experience of immigrant mothers and their American-born daughters. It is a project with which Licha has firsthand experience.

When she told her daughters, Marian and Alexandra the news, their reaction was unexpected.

"But Mom!" they protested, "You're not an immigrant!"

Tell that to her birth certificate.

Like most actors, Licha supplements her stage gigs by hiring herself out for voice-overs, commercials, roles in industrial films and a storytelling program that she performs in area schools. But her first love remains staging her own plays -- and Licha is careful to always write a role for herself.

Rehearsing Frida has caused Licha to find layers and nuances in the show that she and her co-author, R. Dennis Green, weren't even aware existed.

"Even before I started writing this play, I knew that Frida was out there," she says.

"But I didn't know how outrageous she was until I started performing her, until I started walking the way she walked, and dancing the way she danced, and saying the things she said. You learn things from physical movement that you can't learn any other way."

mary.mccauley@baltsun.com

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