Thursday, April 27, 2017

“Love” is not all there is

Here Lies Love (Navid Baraty)
Here Lies Love
Seattle Repertory Theatre
Through June 18, 2017

So many “why?” questions… The huge, immersive production of Here Lies Love at Seattle Repertory Theatre has the company investing tens of thousands of dollars (maybe hundreds?). Why? What makes this idea, this musical so worth the money? The company has invested months in the making of it, remaking their largest theatrical space into a “nightclub” atmosphere with a movable light-up stage. Why?

There are many ways to construct a nightclub. Why have they built something that limits their usual 800+ seats to less than 300? Why must the stage move? That must have cost an enormous amount more. It shrinks the allowable dance floor by a lot!

They must believe in what they’re doing. That also has to mean that doing so is worth all of it. The experience of attending Here Lies Love is different, somewhat, if you’re sitting in the balcony above or the sides of the nightclub or on the floor where you have to stand for most of the 90-plus minute show. If you’re standing, perhaps wanting to dance the night away, you might get to dance a bit, but for most of that time, you’re watching a fairly standard musical theater production with set songs – many of them power ballads, not terribly danceable to.

You may love seeing the stage move, and being guided by enthusiastic lit-airplane-baton-wielding helpers to avoid standing where the stage is moving to. There is a very talented and enthusiastic cast of actor/singers, almost all “of color” who show that there are some tremendous singers in our country that are underused and underseen. Jaygee Macapugay, Mark Bautista, Conrad Ricamora and Melody Butiu are well worth watching!

But part of writing about such an experience is also to evaluate what they are attempting to accomplish and whether it is successful. And in that regard, there is a lot of head-scratching. First came a concept-album by David Byrne (of Talking Heads) and Fatboy Slim. Byrne has said that he wanted to figure out how a powerful person “ticks” and to write music about that. But why would he pick Imelda Marcos? And does his portrayal of her story help us understand what makes her tick?

The Marcos’ (Ferdinand and Imelda) became defacto dictators in the Philippines in the ‘70s and ‘80s until what became known as the People Power Revolution over four days in February, 1986. The Marcos’ were airlifted out of the country and the Philippines were able to return to democracy. The uniqueness of the Revolution was that it was non-violent – an ultimate example of Mahatma Gandhi’s precepts. It’s a fascinating story, probably, but the musical portrays such a slim portion of it that it’s not even clear anyone who didn’t know this would absorb very much of that history from attending.

Byrne wanted to set the story in a nightclub to have people dance to the musical story. Imelda Marcos was said to love disco. Great! There’s a big disco ball that starts onstage before the musical, but none of the music is disco! It’s set in the Philippines, but none of the music can be said to be reminiscent of Filipino music! Why?

The story Byrne creates about Imelda is very, very similar to Evita Peron. In fact, Imelda was likened to Evita even as she rose to power, since the musical Evita was already an iconic theatrical experience about a young, poor, pretty woman who rises through association with a powerful man. We learn that Imelda is the prettiest girl in Tacloban, her tiny town.

We see her fall in love with Ninoy Aquino, who dumps her, and later Ferdinand Marcos, who runs for an wins the presidency. We hear that he cheats on her and she takes lots of pills. Poor Imelda. She’s a sad rich woman who travels the world hobnobbing with celebrities and talking with empty words about giving back to the Pilipino people. She shuns the people she grew up with and takes more pills.

From speaking to Filipinos here, there has been a lot of concern about “another white man” writing about a country less known. Would it be a respectful portrayal? It does seem respectful, though the amount of history included feels like Wikipedia-lite. It’s straight forward: this happened, then that happened. But in the focus on Imelda, it’s extremely weak.

If all she is is a pretty woman who married well and took a lot of pills, why has she been able to return to the Philippines and be elected over and over again to their government? There has to be some smarts there! So, why is this how she is portrayed?

The end of the musical is also weak. The context for how and why people rose up in such numbers in a country that they were able to force out a dictator – nonviolently, no less – is truly important. The kind of dictatorship that the Marcos’ created is reminiscent of what could happen here with our current administration trying to dismantle our State Department, Education Department, EPA, and many others. While the “People” are given a song at the end, (“God draws straight with crooked lines”), it certainly does not help us understand how that happened.

The production is visually pretty. There are great costumes (by Clint Ramos), aspects of exciting set design (by David Korins) and mass different lighting experiences (designed by Justin Townsend).

The most Filipino part of the event is the gorgeous choreography by Annie-B Parson. If we didn’t have that, the entire experience would be almost non-ethnically centered!

In summarizing, without being able to answer the why questions, since so many of the choices are opaque as to the reasoning, it’s also hard to then determine if they are successful. It’s a pleasant experience in many ways, for a one-time experience, but I wouldn’t want to go again. In that way, if it’s not worth going again, then maybe the question is was it worth the effort?

For more information, go to www.seattlerep.org or call 206-443-2222.