We The People (And The Audience): Here Lies Love

05/21/2014 4:00 AM |

Here Lies Love
The Public Theater

This David Byrne-Fatboy Slim musical about Imelda and Ferdinand Marcos was first a concept album/song cycle; on it, guest singers like Cyndi Lauper, Tori Amos and Florence Welch took turns playing Imelda. Adapting this elliptical record for the stage must have been tricky, but director Alex Timbers and choreographer Annie-B Parson have molded it into a piece of vital and unusual theater. When young Imelda (Ruthie Ann Miles) sings the catchy title song, she belts it like a Broadway hopeful ready for stardom. Timbers and company use all of the tropes of musical theater to play with your head here, riling you up and putting you right into Imelda’s headspace. You share in her bullshit and become a part of it because of how the production is staged.

Here Lies Love (in a return engagement at the Public Theater through June 21) plays out in a discotheque where the audience stands throughout and gets herded around by stagehands in pink jumpsuits. When Imelda and Ferdinand (Jose Llana) are first coming to power, their cheerful showbiz smiles blare down at you as if you’re the commoners they hope to hoodwink into obedience. The cleverness of this concept is that the audience is naturally confused at first, looking around, uncertain where to go and where to move, and so we begin to stand in for and feel like the people of the Philippines. As the show goes on, the audience acclimates to the situation; they can even do some simple choreography for the DJ in the rafters. By the time the country has turned on Imelda and Ferdinand and driven them away, the audience is finally orderly, facing front.

If it were staged in the usual proscenium style, Here Lies Love might feel a little flimsy, but the production is so ingeniously conceived and styled that it can’t be divorced from the content; in fact, the style very much is the content. As Imelda, Miles fills out the sketch of her character with a three-dimensional and fully committed performance, going from modest beauty contestant to steely iron lady in bouffant hair and armor-like couture. In the scene in which she confronts her former boyfriend Aquino (Conrad Ricamora), who has been jailed for years by her husband for fomenting revolution, Miles is truly scary because she makes you feel that Imelda is by this point a little crazy, but you can’t tell just how crazy or even in what way. The show seems to end with the Marcoses being booted from the Philippines, and this is followed by a plaintive song of revolution, but Imelda comes back one more time, with her hair down, to sing the title song. This feels appropriate: Imelda is still making waves in the Philippines at age 84, her husband long dead but her devotion to the cult of herself intact.