Monday, June 24, 2013

Here Lies Love

Photo: Sara Krulwich

Immersive theater is hot in New York right now, but that doesn't mean you should always believe the hype. I've seen a bunch of shows that employ immersive techniques over the past two seasons, and some of them really worked for me, while others just...didn't. Murder Ballad was good fun and well directed, and it was sort of thrilling to be so close to the actors that you could tell which ones were wearing contact lenses. Matilda and Pippin were hardly immersive, but both of them worked the relationship between the audience and performer in interesting and creative ways that are atypical for Broadway shows. Last fall, Ivo Van Hove's Roman Tragedies plunged the audience into--and around, and sometimes even directly in the way of--the action, and also actively relied on it to drive home a series of increasingly complex messages about global politics and the media. I haven't seen Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812, but I understand you can drink vodka and nibble caviar while watching the performers, who occasionally come and sit at your table with you or steal something off your plate. Then there's Here Lies Love, the critically lauded, immersive collaboration between David Byrne, Fatboy Slim, and Alex Timbers, which is currently at the Public. Oh, reader, I so wanted to like it.

Can you blame me? David Byrne is awesome. Fatboy Slim is awesome. I had something akin to a religious experience when I saw Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, and thus think that Alex Timbers is awesome. And in truth, the concept of Here Lies Love is awesome, the cast was awesome, and the choreography was awesome. The sum of all these parts, however, was not, alas, an overload of awesomeness. For all the adoration of the press, all the ravings about the immersive environment, all the demand for tickets, all the hip innovations, Here Lies Love is a rather conventional show--even a maddeningly apathetic one--that doesn't say much or use its audience in particularly interesting ways.

Here Lies Love has been compared a lot with Evita, for obvious reasons: Both are "poperas" about the wives of famous 20th century dictators. Both women lived in former Spanish colonies and found glamour and prestige on the arms of their powerful husbands. That's a lot of similarity right there. But there's more: both women have been musicalized by creative teams built almost entirely of men, who seem, in both cases, to want spectators to view their depictions with a mix of pity, adulation, and scorn. Which is all well and good, but all I'm seeing in the press is that while the two shows beg comparison, Here Lies Love holds its own (how? I'm not sure), isn't as openly derisive of its central character (which is supposed to be a good thing, I think), and is radically different because it is immersive and Evita is not.

I'm not here to bash Evita, which I certainly have problems with--just not the same ones that I have with Here Lies Love. Sure, fine, no one would argue that Lloyd Webber and Rice depicted Evita Peron accurately, or even in a way that might possibly, on any planet, be considered nuanced. As far as I know, for example, the real Eva Peron was never followed around by a heroic, utterly uncomplicated, deeply soulful (and typically quite hunky) version of Che Guevara. Also, while she might not have been a very nice person, maybe--and I might be going out on a limb, here--she was not quite the conniving, wheedling, money-hungry, social-climbing whore that Rice and Lloyd Webber feverishly envisioned her to be. Then again, their Evita is big. She is meaty, and alluring, and almost cartoonishly emotive--so much so that when she dies at the end of Evita, the show collapses in on itself and dies, too. The Evita of Evita is larger than life. She is the reason for Patti LuPone, for goodness' sakes.

Imelda is played by Ruthie Ann Miles, who is not comparable in style to Patti LuPone, but who is clearly enormously talented in her own right. She does a fine job portraying Marcos from youth on up, in a storyline that's treated awfully conventionally for all the gimmickry: As a child, Imelda wishes her family had more money and status than they do (she is depicted as poor in the musical; she was not in real life). She is very pretty. She wins beauty pageants. She dates Benigno Aquino, and then marries Ferdinand Marcos after a whirlwind courtship. She takes pills. She parties a lot and spends a lot of money. She is sad when her husband has an affair. She is also sad when her country rejects her and Ferdinand after they've kept themselves in power for over twenty years, stolen countless billions, and committed all kinds of corruptions and human rights violations. The US helps the Marcos family evacuate and settle safely in Hawaii when their government falls, peacefully, to Corazon Aquino, wife of the assassinated Benigno.

The title of the show is apparently what Imelda Marcos wants on her gravestone when she dies: "Here Lies Love." Really? On a gravestone? That's pretty arrogant, huh? And also pretty trite, no? Yes. Exactly. And herein lies the problem: The Imelda Marcos that is central to Here Lies Love is never much more interesting than this gravestone platitude is. There's no real character, here--just a sort of two-dimensional list of events that Byrne, Timbers and--um---Slim don't seem entirely comfortable with or even clear on. Is this woman a self-aggrandizing asshole? A victim of circumstances? A materialistic narcissist? Or is she just astoundingly shallow and not very bright or interesting? I wish they had made up their minds and run with whatever Imelda they wanted to develop. But as it was, I never felt any spark of--well, of anything for this flimsy stage version of the fallen first lady: No pity, no hatred, no attraction, no repulsion. There is scant mention of shoes in Here Lies Love. Everyone who has written about the musical thus far feels compelled to mention this fact. I am starting to wonder if it's because no one is quite certain what else there is to say about Imelda Marcos' depiction without them.

And yes, I get it, the show was about her, not about him. But the fact that Ferdinand is--like all the other characters, really--even more frustratingly, thinly developed than Imelda is makes Here Lies Love seem more sexist than I would have expected and that I am sure its (almost entirely male) creative team would have liked. I don't fling the term around lightly. But the fact that a famous, affluent woman who likes to party and wear nice shoes is held up for scrutiny and easy passing judgment when it is, after all, her husband who was the person in power--greedy, grossly mishandled, dangerously corrupt power--irked me. So too did the decision to make Imelda poor in Here Lies Love, which somehow strikes me as a cheap ploy for some kind of sympathy she didn't deserve, and a plot device that doesn't jibe with her later assertions that it's poor peoples' fault that they are poor.

The ending, too, fell flat for me, especially since it traded on some old rock and roll cliches that I've come to loathe at this point in my life. The People Power Revolution was depicted in song, the lyrics of which were drawn from transcripts of interviews with people involved in the event. Nice touch. But the piece was initially performed by a single guy on acoustic guitar, which I suppose was meant to resonate after an hour and a half of electronic, bootie-shaking disco, but which just reeked to me of folkie old-guard Bob Dylan worship, whether it was meant to or not. The single guitar-playing guy was slowly joined by another guy on snare and then, in the last stanza, a woman on bass drum. It was nice of them to put a woman up there for some of the protest, I guess; I suspect there were plenty of women who were involved during the original uprising, too.

But the end was doubly irksome in how it used the audience in its reenactment of the PPR: it didn't. Not at all. And here's the thing: Here Lies Love has been touted as immersive. I think I've used the term about three-hundred times here, and it's one of the most applied adjectives I've seen when it comes to writing about this show. It's what has helped sell it--its immersiveness.

Which is all well and good, except that the show ultimately doesn't actually do anything interesting with the audience. Spectators are, in fact, kept on a very short leash. Dancing ushers in bright orange jumpsuits keep people moving one way or the other so that the large platforms can be moved all over the floor. There are a few moments during which the audience is directed to do a line dance or form a conga line or shout "yeah" when the DJ asks them to. But otherwise, spectators are instructed to stand around watching the action, or move a little to the left, or a little to the right, out of the way of a passing actor, some moving scenery, or a rotating platform. Until the end, that is, when all spectators are instructed to clear the floor and sit on bleachers, thereby allowing the imagined fourth wall to lower during what might otherwise have been a truly immersive restaging of the PPR.
Why the choice to drive a wedge between the audience and spectator at this point? Why not involve the audience in the reenactment of a mass movement? Come to think of it, why was this piece immersive at all? Why are we all in a disco? Are we all supposed to be Imelda Marcos? Are we all Filipinos? Are we all Americans? And if so, are we being judged for dancing and having fun while the Marcos's abuse their power and then get escorted out of their country by our military and taken safely to ours? We are in some way complicit, right? And if so, couldn't that be made more clear, somehow? Or is the audience genuinely meant to feel absolutely nothing at all, except that it was cool to boogie down with Imelda Marcos? And if so, what is the point of any of this?

I don't think all theater has to say something deep and meaningful, but a show about the Marcos regime--at the Public, no less--that seems so hesitant to say anything at all confuses me. So too do all the accolades. Believe me when I say that it feels unpleasant to be the sourpuss off in the corner, wondering what the fuss is all about, and ruining the party for everyone else.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I think you make some valid points here. A show like this has a way of becoming the general public's main source of information about the people and events depicted, and if the show lets truly evil people off the hook, that's a serious problem.

As for "Evita," I always suspected that Lloyd Webber and Rice really wanted to do a musical about Isabel Peron, whose life story really is the stuff of epic entertainment (and who unlike Eva actually was a chorus girl, as in "The chorus girl hasn't learned the lines you want to hear), but had to settle for Eva because Isabel was still alive.