Monday, July 8, 2013

Here Lies Love: Disco Evita

Here Lies Love is a rapid-fire dance biopic of Imelda Marcos with toe-tapping, eclectic tunes by David Byrne (music and lyrics) and Fat Boy Slim (music) and compelling performances. Alex Timbers's immersive production smartly explores audience manipulation through his staging and, at the same time, immersion makes the theme of the piece all that much stronger. 


Imelda (Ruthie Ann Miles) is a poor girl who dreams of a better life with her bestie Estrella (Melody Butiu).  She meets up and comer Ninoy Aquino (Conrad Ricamora) but he passes her over.  Imelda then meets Ferdinand Marcos (Jose Llana).  They become an unstoppable power couple when he becomes President.  Ninoy becomes a Senator and an active gadfly challenging the Marcos regime.   International jetsetters, Imelda and Ferdinand travel the world, spend the money of their people, and begin to crackdown when protest foments. 

Staged in a dance floor format, the audience is physically moved around by Timbers as the performers sing, dance and act on raised platforms around you.  The platforms and performance areas shift with the change in geography or circumstances of the characters. Quick costume changes show the rapid rise of Marcos's power and changing political climate.  All these aspects keep the proceedings moving. It's a frenetic momentum that is welcome in a lot of ways and driven by the heavy dance-beat score.  Little time is wasted on details, but everything you are given--direction, choreography, lyrics, and performance--is sharply focused and highly effective at communicating the themes of the piece.  

The immersive format is expertly structured and ultimately is totalitarian. Don't get me wrong, it is fun (if you don't have a paralyzing anxiety over line dancing like some people).  Actors shout out dance steps to the audience, they tell you to clap, they tell you to jump, and it seems appropriate with the music.   But that's the insidiousness of Timbers's direction. The more you get into the music or the dancing, the more you become complicit in the rise of Marcos.

Imelda's anxieties are present with pills, desperate cries for love, and anger at Ferdinand's affairs. I wish more had been developed between Imelda and Ninoy.  As told here, Ninoy threw her over when they were young for being too tall and yet years later she is the one who gets him released from prison to continue his advocacy against the Marcos regime from America.  But the nature of their relationship is not really explored.  It's a small thing but I wish I understood who they were to each other a bit more.

There is a DJ who guides the audience through the start of the show.  I had hoped the character of the DJ would serve a bit of a Che-like role.  He provides some context at the beginning and then unexpectedly returns at the end. But his role ends up feeling less symbolic and more administrative (those are the fire exits etc...).


This is not a show about black or white answers but about the sensations. Immersion can be both exciting and challenging. As a particularly short audience member it was hard at moments to see.  At other times you are focused on following the instructions of the crew to move appropriately and it broke my theatrical attention. The projections (by Peter Nigrini) often provided welcome added texture and context (names, places, years, locations, headlines and news footage). They help to dial up the historical perspective.  They were helpful Cliffs Notes on Filipino history.  Annie-B Parson's choreography is brilliant.  The choreography articulates the rising tension, supports and drives the narrative, and enhances the emotional qualities of the story.


The lead performers are all fantastic.  Ruthie Ann Miles makes Imelda sympathetic (again a layer of manipulation and complicity that works in a positive way narratively but might make you uncomfortable if you stop dancing long enough to think about it).  Jose Llana is charismatic as Marcos.  When he walks through the audience shaking people's hands, putting his arms around people, they moon over him.


The finale strips off the disco artifice with the fall of the regime.  Nimoy's dramatic return to the Philippines is shocking whether you recall the history of that event or not. I saw the show twice and even though I knew what was coming it still made me feel slightly ill and chilled me to my bones.

Like the harsh light of day at the end of a long night of partying, the audience has to confront their own actions from their night on the dance floor.  Immersion makes this possible.  It's a smart move by Timbers & Co. and it makes this show a must-see. 

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