Strolling into a theater to encounter a disco ball 12 times the size of a human head is both disorienting and intriguing. Seattle Repertory Theatre has transformed its 850-seat Bagley Wright Theatre into a 1970s-themed discothèque for its production of Here Lies Love. From the moment the audience enters the general-admission space, designed by David Korins, lasers point across the room in an experimental exchange with historical video footage projected on the walls. The steady thump of disco music is thrown on the theater-turned-dance floor to prepare you for what lies ahead: dancing with dictators.
David Byrne and Fatboy Slim collaborated to produce this musical, the story of the controversial first lady of the Philippines, Imelda Marcos. The Rep’s most expensive spectacle to date, unfortunately, falls short of masking the production’s problematic white-American framing.
Imelda’s narrative drives the show’s arc. She and Ferdinand Marcos, president of the Philippines from 1965 to 1986, installed martial law during their time in power; committed massive financial, electoral, and political fraud; and plummeted the nation into a national financial crisis. During the period of martial law, 3,240 citizens were murdered by the state, thousands were imprisoned, and any rebellion was squelched until the People’s Power Revolution successfully deposed the Marcoses in 1986.
In interviews with The Stranger and The Seattle Times, Byrne makes it clear that one of his intentions for this show was to expose how the public is often charmed by smooth-talking, wealthy, and aesthetically focused politicians who preach populism. The main method by which he attempts this is through immersive engagement between audience members and the cast. In one scene, Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino Jr., Ferdinand’s leading challenger, attempts to galvanize the audience against him, encouraging audience members to dance with him as he revolts. Images of poverty from the Philippines at the time of the revolution are splashed across the screens surrounding the space. It’s obvious that the production’s directorial vision is attempting to engage the audience to present a political message—but what message? The images during Aquino’s speech/dance read as a sort of poverty porn; Byrne’s white American gaze clouds the production’s vision, placing spectacle above political poignance and revolutionary struggle.
From shaking hands to shaking booties, the dance party moves forward at a lightning pace. At one point the Marcoses, played by the brilliant Mark Bautista and Jaygee Macapugay, campaign for their political platform, shaking audience hands as they sing and walk through the center of the crowd. Here again is a direct relationship between the political leaders and the audience. Yet if the purpose is to expose the ways dictators can galvanize the public, the critical bite is lacking. The “Aha—we have been seduced by dictators” moment Byrne seems to be going for was unclear to this audience member; the immersive spectacle overwhelmed a chance at critical engagement. What would Here Lies Love look like if it had been written by Filipinos who had been a part of or connected to the revolution? Let’s hope Byrne sticks to New Wave from here on. Here Lies Love, Seattle Repertory Theatre, Seattle Center, seattlerep.org. $50–$160. Ends May 28.