Here lies the disco-driven life of Imelda Marcos

Imelda (played by Ruthie Ann Miles) on learning about Ferdinand Marcos’s torrid affair with Dovie Beams

Imelda (played by Ruthie Ann Miles) on learning about Ferdinand Marcos’s torrid affair with Dovie Beams

By Cristina DC Pastor

If you have to watch David Byrne’s “Here Lies Love,” be prepared to suspend disbelief. This disco musical is part fiction and part history, and if some details appear like figments of the writer’s mind, they probably are.

Much of the urban legend revolving around Imelda Marcos is so delightfully woven in this production it is so tempting for the American viewer to absorb everything as fact. The Filipino viewer will dig deep into his/her bag of Marcos lore and determine what to believe.

Imelda’s rags-to-riches story begins in post-war (1940s) Tacloban, Leyte where she was born and grew up in the care of a woman named Estrella Cumpas. Many times during the play, my friend, Kathleen, and I would look at each other as if to ask ourselves: ‘Did you know that?’ We’ve never heard of Estrella, and an Internet search would have the name turn up only in connection with Byrne and his theatrical ideation of Imelda.

The story unfolds the way history essentially has, climaxing with the assassination of opposition leader Ninoy Aquino in 1986. The end would have Imelda singing the very upbeat “Why Don’t You Love Me?” Here, she is seen in tears waving as she boards a plane that will take her corrupt family to exile following a bloodless revolution.

Nevertheless, “Here Lies Love” is one highly entertaining piece of theater. The set, reminiscent of Studio 54, complete with mirror balls and strobe lights, is arranged in such a way that the audience will have no choice but to move and dance.

Which is a story in itself.

Conrad Ricamora as Ninoy Aquino

Conrad Ricamora as Ninoy Aquino

Where the musical is presented is a compact two-level studio in The Public Theatre. On the first floor is the movable stage with no seats. The audience should be prepared to stand throughout and groove to the music. Byrne and Fatboy Slim’s music is guaranteed to get the feet tapping, and before you know it, you are swinging your hips and shoulders side to side and dancing with complete strangers.

Kathleen and I were seated in the balcony maybe because we got the cheapest tickets. We had seats, though, and watched looking down from a railing. When it got to the part where the Marcoses were partying with a stream of world leaders, Kathleen and I could only groove with a view of Mikhail Gorbachev’s forehead with the birth scar. Sad, I know.

The plot alleges that Imelda’s first serious boyfriend was Ninoy Aquino, “a reporter with political ambitions.” Again, another ‘did you know that?’ glance at Kathleen.

The narrative went on to suggest that Imelda was responsible for having Ninoy released from jail and sent to the U.S. for medical treatment for his heart condition. I’ve always thought mounting U.S. pressure led to that decision, but then turning that into danceable music would probably be a stretch.

Byrne – who was in the audience – said he’s long been an avid Imelda watcher. His message, he told The New York Times, is to present Imelda as one who was probably “corrupted by power,” someone who has changed when she married the “power-hungry” Ferdinand.

It’s easy for fact to bleed into fiction, and the celebrated artist that Byrne is can always find a way to reconfigure what truly happened to fit his latest theatrical work. He is entitled to his own interpretation of our political history.

But as Filipinos who lived through those horrible years, certain episodes that are vague or downright misleading need to be explained. It can’t be a matter of just taking things sitting down or simply dancing the tragedy away.

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  1. [...] Salazar, Trevor Salter and Janelle Velasquez. These FilAms are the talented stars and crew of “Here Lies Love,” the immersive musical event by David Byrne and DJ Fatboy Slim, currently performing at the [...]

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