Going to see Here Lies Love is an experience. It is immersive and provocative and at times incredibly overwhelming. This rock musical was written by Fatboy Slim and David Byrne about Imelda Marcos, the wife of a Filipino Dictator in the years leading up to the People’s Power Revolution.
While the Rep’s 2016/17 season revolves around power dynamics, HLL would perhaps have been more fitting in the next season, titled “We are real, messy, human.” The entire duration of the play one both sympathizes and is disappointed with Imelda as she embarks on a life that seems to continually draw her further and further away from reality. HLL gives voice and accessibility to Filipino history while at the same time telling the story of a complex and struggling woman in power.
The Rep does a great job crafting a complex female lead and creating a space where the audience can feel genuine moral conflict about a woman with a complicated life who is best remembered for her shoe collection. At one point the audience is asked to dance to an upbeat song after revealing that student protesters have been shot down in the street. Even the way the audience must look up at the performers, who are standing on platforms, places the actors beyond reality. As Imelda sings “Why don’t you love me?” as she flees her country she could just as well be singing it down to the audience that has come to despise her as to real citizens.
The production itself was both creative and perhaps overambitious. Because the audience was standing at many points it was difficult to both see and hear performers and the storyline became difficult to follow. Although the performance is only 90 minutes by the end my back and feet hurt terribly--making it clear the performance was not meant for people who worked on their feet. The set was incredible, if slightly overcomplicated, with an entire metal arena constructed and numerous metal platforms moving and changing throughout the performance, navigating around the standing audience.
I left HLL impressed with an incredible performance, but conflicted about a storyline that I found troubling and incomplete. The play leaves the Philippines just after the revolution with a powerful ballad by the people as their country returns to peace. People are allowed to leave at ease, knowing the small island country has resolved their bloody conflict.
But in reality that just isn’t the case.
Currently, the Philippines is under a great amount of duress as their elected president, Rodrigo Duterte, wages a drug war that has killed 9,000 people, many of them minors. It felt wrong to share a narrative humanizing and sympathizing with a dictator when the Philippines is still under attack by tyrannical officials. It felt misleading to a (mostly) white audience to leave them with the impression that because democracy had come to the Philippines everything was fixed, as we often incline ourselves to think in America.
That feeling was compounded when I saw that the writers and directors of this production were not themselves of Filipino descent. Perhaps this is my bias as a white woman in the audience. It’s possible that I am putting too much pressure on a play centering around a non-white history when there are plenty of imperfect white narratives that wouldn’t face such criticism. I was certainly ecstatic to see actors of color getting the limelight and having a narrative of any kind focused on a history other than my own.
For those who wanted to learn more the Rep even has reference pages to Filipino organizations in the area. But I wonder if that is enough. I left conflicted, but I think the intentions of this play were good, bringing life and vibrancy to Filipino history and culture and attention to young actors. The production was beautiful, the actors' performances moving, and I would 100% see it again.