NEW YORK CITY — Imelda Romualdez Marcos leads a charmed life. So far able to dodge the bullet of criminal liability and seemingly inured to the regular impugning of her past and her character, she’s living proof that lives can have third acts.
Ooh’d and ahh’d over in public, the congresswoman now has her own “Evita,” the musical based on Evita Peron’s life with whom she was often compared, a comparison she didn’t like one bit. But she has never raised objections, at least publicly, to the rock musician, he-of-Talking-Heads-fame, David Byrne’s poperetta “Here Lies Love,” reviewed last year in this column.
Using the trappings of a disco as a symbol for the excesses and the lure (and luridness) of dictatorial rule, Byrne portrays how the Imelda Marcos era’s glittery façade seduced a nation even as betrayed it and plundered its treasury. With the focus on her insecurities, however, the Public Theater production makes it seem that those days were after all just a funhouse ride. As a result, Imelda gets a pass.
The same can be said for “Livin’ La Vida Imelda,” written and performed by the Manila-based performance artist Carlos Celdran, and produced recently in New York by Ma-Yi Theater Company in Times Square, uptown from Byrne’s work. The evening’s entertainment is cleverly framed as a gossip fest, with Celdran acting as the gossip meister. This allows the material—or “dirt,” as a poster for the show puts it, though the dirt here is decidedly minor—to be shown with knowing nods and winks, enabling Celdran to draw the audience in (an enthusiastic one the night I attended) for a night of tsismis.
There’s loads of it.
What Celdran chooses to include and exclude is telling: the construction of the Cultural Center in Manila but not of the Santo Niño shrine in Tacloban, with its His and Her thrones; her psychiatric sessions in New York but not the purchase of choice real-estate properties or the shopping orgies in the same city, with government money; her going out on a date with Ninoy Aquino when both were single but not her (whispered) possible role in his assassination; her grandiloquent declarations of her love for the arts, but not her propensity for drawing circles and proclaiming to anyone who would listen that due to a hole in the sky the Philippines is blessed with psychic energy; her ambitious plan to have Manila as the host of an annual film festival but not her colonial-minded views on what Philippine film should be. According to the late, great filmmaker Lino Brocka, a fierce critic of Imelda and all that she represented, she once told him that her favorite flick was “The Sound of Music,” and that films from the Philippines should inspire its viewers to want to become Filipino just as seeing the Trapp family traipsing through the Alps made us all want to be wholesome, ruddy cheeked Westerners.
Celdran makes no mention of her seeming lack of involvement in the rebuilding of her hometown, Tacloban, reduced to rubble last year because of Typhoon Yolanda, and still far from recovery—surely an item worthy of gossip. The city’s movers and shakers (a number of them related to her) have supported her all these years. Has she given anything significant from the indecent amounts of wealth she and her family have amassed? I’d like to know what the dirt on that is.
As the evening progresses, it’s clear that Celdran’s choices reveal him to be sympathetic to Imelda. If we are to believe him, Imelda singlehandedly saved Philippine arts and culture. His spin on her persona is his prerogative, of course, but like a tabloid reporter Celdran zeroes in more on the shimmery and slippery surfaces of a well-manicured, not to mention well-edited, life but turns a blind eye to the deeper implications and tragic consequences on a national scale of a woman gone wild with power.
There is one lovely, eloquent and powerful interlude in the performance. On the back wall are projected the names of those who suffered torture, were disappeared, or executed. Celdran has his back to us, standing as a witness, silent for the only time in the 90-minute performance. (At times, he comes across more as a lecturer than the town gossip.) By inference, the lists are linked to the regime and thus to Imelda as well. Be that as it may, Celdran paints the former first lady and wannabe cultural czarina as a flawed character ultimately redeemed by her good intentions. Alas, as we all know, the road to Hell is paved with good intentions.
What worries me is that such theatrical works may very well become emblematic of how the Marcos regime will be viewed by those who came of age after 1986. Will these induce in them feelings of nostalgia (ironically, for an era they never experienced), that times were better then than now? How and what will they remember? Will the collective memory of a people who suffered the brutality and indignities of a conjugal dictatorship be betrayed? In his poem “A Philippine History Lesson,” the late Alfrredo Navarro Salanga wrote presciently, “It’s history that / moves us away / from what we are.”
Exactly right, in this case.
Copyright L.H. Francia 2014
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