Here Lies Love

Here Lies Love is absolutely amazing. David Byrne and Alex Timbers have created a bold and gloriously effective method to tell an important and ever relevant story. 

Tracing the rise and fall of Imelda Marcos, the one-time first lady of the Philippines, it tells of idealistic people’s corruptibility; of how easy it is to get overwhelmed by a new world and all its fancy delights; of how your point of view and the atrocities you justify in the name of a (self-proclaimed) greater cause can change dramatically. The story of the Marcoses' reign is a fascinating and thought provoking one, and presented as it is at the Public Theater, it is unshakable.

Here Lies Love (the title is taken from the epitaph Imelda Marcos requested for her gravestone) was conceived by musician David Byrne (of Talking Heads), who went on, in 2010, to create a concept album with Fatboy Slim (lyrics are credited to Byrne; music to both). At that time, according to a program note from Public Theater artistic director, Oskar Eustis, Byrne was in discussion with the Public to bring the concept to life on stage. Enter the inventive and extraordinary director Alex Timbers (Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Peter and the Starcatcher). 

Timbers sets the stage in a dance club. Actually, he sets the whole experience in a dance club. The LuEsther theatre, the space at the Public in which Here Lies Love plays, is transformed into a dance hall. There are no seats—you stand and dance and move around throughout the show, while the music in pumping and the cast moves, sings and dances around and with you. (There are limited, partial view balcony seats, but that takes you out of the action.) I have to admit: when I heard the concept for the staging I was a little wary but I so love Timbers’s work and trust him so much as a director that I was excited to go on the journey.

And that’s the thing about this kind of completely immersive theatrical experience: you really do go on the journey. This story, without a doubt, has to be told this way. Telling it this way makes you part of everything, including the true story, and because of that, it makes you culpable. It would be very easy to put this on a proscenium stage and sit in the audience like you do for a typical show. You would be distanced from the story and you would be able to make easy, unsophisticated judgements. 

But where’s the fun in that? Placing the audience in the experience—literally—makes everything come alive even more and makes you think long and hard about what’s happening because it’s happening to you. You cannot escape it. So you’re watching Imelda get swept up in the party life. In this immersive experience, if you enjoy the spoils—the parties and the hobnobbing with the toast of the town—then you are also responsible for the oppression and violence (notably the government-sponsored bombings and Order 1081 in the early 70s and Aquino’s assassination in 1983). 

Furthermore, by making you a part of the experience, the experience stays with you long after the lights come up and you dance out of the theatre. All night, I found myself thinking that, as divisive as American politics can be, at least power doesn’t change hands in such a bloody manner and we don’t have our leaders unilaterally declaring martial law. But then I wondered if we really are above that. We see in Here Lies Love how easily corruptible us fragile humans are. And then I thought about the fact that our own government is endorsing drone attacks and they are being carried out in a murky legal area that should have every American concerned about the precedent it sets. And America’s gun zealots are literally encouraging people to stockpile guns and rifles because they may need to “rise up against ‘tyranny’.” (I’m not joking. People—elected officials—are making these statements.) By being in the Philippines (as much as we can in a theatre in downtown New York), we realize it could happen here. Or, we could follow the model of the People Power Revolution and continue to exercise our Constitutional “right of the people peaceably to assemble and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.” We could earnestly say, “here lies love,” and let our actions show it. 

The politics and messaging and staging aside (though a major shout out is due to scenic designer David Korins and production stage manager Alaina Taylor, who, respectively, created the space and keep it and us moving), Here Lies Love boasts an incredibly talented cast. 

Nine ensemble members work their asses off as they dance (fiercely, to choreography by Annie-B Parson), sing and transport us throughout the Philippines and along Imelda’s journey from poor country girl to corrupted world leader. Along the way we meet Imelda’s childhood friend and caretaker, Estrella (Melody Butiu); Aquino (a strong and mesmerizing Conrad Ricamora), her first love who becomes her and her husband’s political rival; and her husband and eventual president of the Philippines, Ferdinand Marcos (the engaging Jose Llana).

They are all led by the incredible Ruthie Ann Miles as Imelda. Miles has a gorgeous, sweet voice, but don’t be fooled by the sweetness. A formidable talent, Miles shows off Imelda’s toughness as she climbs higher and higher to the precarious top. With just a few New York credits to her name, this is Miles’s coming out party. Expect to see many great things from this beauty for years to come. 

Extended three times, Here Lies Love continues at the Public through June 30. Shimmy on down to experience this important and unique piece of theatre.