by Collin McConnell · May 5, 2014
Nor did I ever imagine a poperetta would make me laugh - and cry - so hard.
But Here Lies Love is something extraordinary: an intensely charged political drama spinning in a wild dance through history by way of one woman's struggle to see the world around her wrapped up with frighteningly infectious pop music throbbing through the veins of the night club that you find yourself almost unwittingly - and literally - at the center of.
The story: if you don't already know the story of Imelda Marcos as the first lady of the Philippines and the political strife surrounding her husband's presidency, I suggest a quick read through the timeline I've supplied at the bottom of the page - it is a remarkable story, and one I'm a bit embarrassed to admit I knew nothing about until the morning before seeing this production. (Additionally, if you are planning on going, knowing the story makes the experience all the more exciting.)
All caught up? Good. Because as I climbed the stairs to the third floor of the Public Theater - lit with pink neon lights, throbbing with a muffled electric bass line, fog seeping in from the theater above - that timeline was running through my head, and I started wondering "how on earth is that the story I am about to see?" And as I entered the "theater" - not a theater, but the Millenium Club; no seats, just a dance floor - and looked about at Imelda's face projected around the room, moving and morphing, and the electro-pop throbbing loudly, and the DJ up top, bizarrely - ominously - conducting, I just started laughing. It didn't seem to make any sense. But I trusted that, eventually, it would.
And it did.
The odd mix of throwing history into a nightclub captures the terrifying flippancy of Imelda's life. But then, it also makes the unfortunately distanced, stale and dusty taste of history and politics so incredibly intimate and immediate. It takes the form of the musical and twists it into an experience wholly unexpected - the music sneaks up on you, making you dance, as uncertainty slowly creeps in, until it finally - literally - surrounds you. This is Antonin Artaud's Theater of Cruelty at its absolute finest.
Director Alex Timbers nimbly flies the show all over the room, weaving the action in and out and all around the audience, demanding the audience move with it, too. Writers and creators David Byrne and Fatboy Slim also demand the audience to move - the music races through the blood, often raising the whole audience up off the ground, jumping, leaping, screaming and singing along. Annie-B Parson's choreography accutely rides the passions of the moment - swinging from candied numbers one might expect to find in South Pacific (with a wink - and a bit of a tongue in her cheek) to the noxious pulsating of a grimy and glitzy New York City night club, all the way to exposing the rumble inside and underneath the bereaved. David Korin makes the world possible with his brilliantly seedy set design (made all-the-better with Justin Townsend's neon-addled lighting) - wrapping all the way around the audience, with impressively mobile and maliable platforms that move through the crowd, consistently breaking it apart - and Peter Nigrini submerges the audience deep in that world with the projection design, as it teases apart history with shock, surprise, and awe. Clint Ramos is deserving of exceptional praise for his wild array of (bizarrely accurate) costumes and their amazing flexibility - it is a treat to watch full suits and giant gowns be sucked off of bodies as actors fly from one scene into the next, mid-song, in under a second.
The cast is impeccable. Their commitment to this wild riot of a show makes what could easily be a confusing mess of genre and history so rich and exciting. Ruthie Ann Miles is delightfully infuriating and uncomfortably convicing as she sinks deeper and deeper into Imelda's ignorance (as the lyrics "why don't you love me?" came spilling out of her mouth, I wished for death to hide me from the shame). Jose Llana as Marcos is enthralling in much the same way (one of the more striking moments of the shows is watching the dichotomy between real life and the telvision screen as Llana interacts with the camera following him around). And Conrad Ricamora as Aquino is something more that charming, so much so that watching him walk right into his death is easily the most difficult moment of the evening (ans beyond anything than my words here could possibly prepare anyone for). But while the show is centered around these characters, this is deeply an ensemble show, and some of the smaller characters have some of the best moments of the show - there is so much joy in watching Melody Butiu's Estrella watch Imelda pass by after her wedding from behind the gate of their once-shared home, and while Kelvin Moon Loh's DJ is hilarious (and excellent), and certainly gets the party started on the right note, the one song he gets to sing is the most moving of the evening.
I walked out of the Millenium Club with my heart racing and my face soaked with tears. The only words I could get out of my mouth were
"That is what theater can do."
My girlfriend turned to me and said
"When you were laughing and when you were crying, your jaw was down to here."
It's true. It was.
Here Lies Love is joyously ridiculous without apology, but with so much heart and hope that it is oddly surprising when it so easily beats you down - and then lifts you back up again.
(thanks to the lovely press folks at O+M Co and the Public for sending a timeline, from which all of the following is taken)
- Imelda Romuáldez dates Benigno (Ninoy) Aquino, but he leaves her (because she's "too tall" - read: she can't see beyond herself, down to the people).
- Imelda meets senator Ferdinand Marcos. Eleven days later, they are married.
- Ferdinand is elected President of the Philippines.
- Ninoy Aquino becomes the leader of the political opposition. He criticizes Imelda for her profligate spending on arts centers while much of the country lives in poverty.
- Ferdinand has an affair with an American B-Movie actress. She publicly releases a sex tape she made of them.
- Ferdinand, near the end of his second term, fabricates civil strife. In Plaza Miranda, the whole opposition (except for Aquino) is killed in an explosion.
- Ferdinand declares martial law and maintains power under order 1081.
- Aquino is imprisoned for seven years. He has a heart attack and Imelda sends him to the United States for treatment, warning him never to return.
- Aquino returns to the Philippines. As he steps off the plane, he is assasinated.
- The people peacefully protest, and after only four days they take control of the TV and radio stations, resulting in Ferdinand and Imelda being airlifted out of the country by the U.S.