By Karina Billini, Blake Bishton, Phillip Christian, Georgina Escobar, Emily Krause, Elizagrace Madrone, Alexandra Paola, Alexis Roblan, Carmen Rivera, and Alisa Zhulina; Directed by Tess Howsam
Produced by Exquisite Corpse Company
Off Off Broadway, Immersive Play
Runs through 10.1.17
Governors Island, Colonels Row, House 407B
by Asya Danilova on 9.10.17
The cast of A Ribbon About A Bomb. Photo by Al Rodriguez.
BOTTOM LINE: An immersive show with surreal sets and live music intertwines the biographies of Frida Kahlo, Remedios Varo, and Leonora Carrington.
What did it mean to be a female artist in the surrealist movement of the twentieth century? They were rarely taken seriously and had to fight prejudice and for their place in the art world. Add overbearing parents, cheating husbands, forced relocation, and various physical and mental health conditions, and you get the collective portrait of the three heroines of A Ribbon About A Bomb: Frida Kahlo, Remedios Varo, and Leonora Carrington.
The immersive show, produced by Exquisite Corpse Company, takes place in a run down two-story mansion on Governors Island. A fifteen-minute ferry ride ($2 round-trip) transports you to the surreal world of three artists, filled with installations inspired by the life and work of Carrington, Kahlo, and Varo. All three of them knew each other and all ultimately lived in Mexico. Spanish-born Varo and British Carrington first met in Paris, and lived in close proximity from each other in Mexico City. They were friends for about 20 years, often working together.
Another common ground for all three is the surrealist movement, in which Varo and Carrington took part. Kahlo rejected the label of “surrealist artist” placed on her by Andre Breton. The recurring theme of A Ribbon About A Bomb (how Breton described Kahlo’s painting) is how female artists must fight against imposed boundaries while searching for an authentic path in life and in art.
The show is actually two plays happening simultaneously. Upon arrival you are randomly assigned to attend either “The Wedding” or “The Funeral” (I saw the latter). Six audience members are ushered into a dimly lit room with a coffin in the middle, evoking interiors from the mystical paintings of Varo and Carrington. We are here to meet the eccentric, and presumably tipsy, Leonora (Blaire O’Leary) and Frida (Sara Ornelas) circa 1940, dressed as in her Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair.
As Ornelas sings, she is not the Frida as we know her, abundantly decorated with ribbons and flowers. Still Ornelas perfectly captures the character: exuberant, feisty, and sincere. We can see that her fireball energy is generated from pain, both physical and emotional. Throughout the play we collect bits and pieces of Kahlo’s biography, though it certainly helps to be familiar with it. I knew next to nothing about Varo and Carrington, so it was more difficult to connect the dots. Each of three women takes the audience to a solo-scene at some point, but it feels like two lesser-known artists get less “air time.”
It is also enjoyable to drift along without submerging yourself in research prior to the show. The collective writing of ten authors and original score by KG Garlington invites you to surrender to the collage-like text and forget about exhausted narratives. After all, even the producing company’s name, Exquisite Corpse, comes from the game invented by surrealists in which each following person contributes to the text (or drawing) of the previous.
Some of the sets—by Andrea Caldarise, Lee Collins, Sara Gosses, Tess Howsam, and Mila Villasana—are works of art themselves. Of note is the collaborative installation “Corseted Community,” featuring clay corsets painted by women artists from the USA and Mexico. Leonora Carrington’s dress, by Matsy Stinson, fills the entire room (it's made from 50 feet of fabric) and is another of many striking visuals.
A Ribbon About A Bomb is true to its name, a beautiful design wrapped around an explosive core. Although the eclectic writing is not even and can fall into either obscurity or banality at times, the performances, especially of O’Leary and Ornelas, are what drive the show. I would run up and down stairs all day if one of them were leading the way.
(A Ribbon About A Bomb plays on Governors Island, Colonels Row, House 407B, through October 1, 2017. The running time is 1 hour and 15 minutes with no intermission. Performances are Fridays at 3 and Saturdays and Sundays at 1 and 4. Tickets are $20 for a single show, $30 for both. Tickets and more information are available at exquisitecorpsecompany.com.)
A Ribbon About A Bomb is by Karina Billini, Blake Bishton, Phillip Christian, Georgina Escobar, Emily Krause, Elizagrace Madrone, Alexandra Paola, Alexis Roblan, Carmen Rivera, and Alisa Zhulina. Directed by Tess Howsam. Installations are by Andrea Caldarise, Lee Collins, Sara Gosses, Tess Howsam, and Mila Villasana. Lighting Design is by Sara Gosses. Sound Design is by Carsen Joenk. Original Music is by KG Garlington. Costume Design is by Matsy Stinson. Stage Manager is Jillian Goldstein.
The cast is Christin Cato, Mindy Escobar-Leanse, KG Garlington, Stephanie Chloe Hepner, Andrea Lopez, Blaire O’Leary, Sara Ornelas, Rosie Yadid, Robyn Unger, and Zosha Warpehla.