I’d wager that many New Yorkers have a limited grasp of Philippine history, beyond Imelda Marcos and her shoe obsession, or the details surrounding the demise of opposition leader Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino, which thrust his widow, Corazon, or just "Cory," into the political limelight.
Musicians David Byrne and Fatboy Slim changed that last year with “Here Lies Love,” a 360-degree “immersive” experience akin to “Fuerza Bruta” or “Sleep No More” that had Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos storming The Public Theater while rubbing shoulders with a small audience. This month, the musical—think of it as a history lesson by way of Studio 54—returns for an open run in the same space, and it remains an attention-demanding and exhilarating night out.
Conceived by the one-time Talking Heads frontman, with additional music from the British DJ, “Here Lies Love” deconstructs the journey of Filipina First Lady Imelda Marcos (Ruthie Ann Miles), from humble beginnings (indeed, the only reference to footwear is when young Imelda sings “Sometimes, I have no shoes”) to her descent into infamy at the end of the “People Power Revolution.”
Working with wunderkind director Alex Timbers (“Rocky”), Byrne crafted a swift 90-minute production that evokes an amped-up evening in a karaoke bar. The audience stands on the floor of a pulsating dance club, while actors perform on stages either running the perimeter of the intimate venue or bisecting it. Ushers in fluorescent jumpsuits motion like airport tarmac workers, directing us away from the rolling platforms.
You won’t walk out of “Here Lies Love” despising Imelda Marcos, the wilted "Rose of Tacloban,” and that’s thanks to Miles’ sensitive and layered portrayal of a woman like Eva Peron, whose chief personality characteristic may have been self-delusion. The musical notes that Ninoy and Imelda dated early in their lives, and Byrne offers conflicting reasons for their split: Imelda believes Ninoy left her because she was “too tall”; he insists it was because she didn’t love the country the same way he did.
Conrad Ricamora, above center, has charisma to spare as Ninoy, condeming Imelda for turning her back on the Filipino people in “The Fabulous One.” Lyrics, taken from a speech Aquino made before the Philippine senate, are accompanied by images of the real Imelda Marcos out partying with the likes of George Hamilton. My companion for the evening noted that Ricamora’s cadences were “Obama-esque,” and made him seem more of a preacher than a politician.
Jose Llana is equally on point as a strong-willed Ferdinand Marcos, whose hypocrisy is exposed when he’s caught having an affair recorded on audiotape.
“Here Lies Love” wouldn’t be an essential experience without the immersive component, which requires you to go with the flow, often literally. You’ll be line dancing, lifting your arms to the sky and bumping into people. The conceit is most effective during a section at the evening’s end where we are in attendance at Ninoy Aquino’s funeral. Cast members hoist his coffin in the air, and that's when you most feel the weight of what preceded the 1986 revolution. In fact, you’ll feel you’re watching a political cycle we’ve witnessed a dozen times since, in places like Libya, Egypt and Iraq.
Byrne's music is fantastic, and if you’re a fan, you should see “Here Lies Love” just to hear new songs coming to life in a special way. The figures in “Here Lies Love” aren’t entirely black and white. Byrne steers Imelda Marcos far away from caricature, and we’re never quite sure if Ninoy Aquino is the man of the people he claims to be. There’s really only one clear group you’re supposed to be rooting for here: the Filipino people.
“Here Lies Love,” with an open-ended run at The Public Theater’s LuEsther Hall, 425 Lafayette St. Tickets: $99-$139. Call 212-967-7555.
Follow Robert Kahn on Twitter@Robert Kahn