Saturday, April 22, 2017

Play: Thriller in Manilla

Here Lies Love: Concept and lyrics by David Byrne, Music by David Byrne and Fatboy Slim,
Additional music by Tom Gandey and J Pardo, Choreographed by Annie-B Parson, Directed by Alex Timbers. Seattle Rep through May 28th.

So let me right off the bat salute the Rep for the ballisest production of recent years. I have in the past tweaked them for relatively safe performances that fit within the bounds of traditional theatre. Small companies of actors, one-person shows, self-contained productions that fly in and out without seemingly touching the ground upon which the stage rests.

Yeah. All of that goes out the window for Here Lies Love, in which the theater itself, seats and all, is transformed into a disco, where the audience can be on the disco floor among moveable stages, where the actors come down and press the flesh with the masses in front of live TV cameras, where there is a continual disco backbeat and an excellent cast powers through a tight ninety minutes that tells the tale of Imelda Marcos. This is one of those performances that poses and tremendous risk for the theater, and it pays off creatively (and should pay off financially, because - spoilers - you really should go see it).

The theater space is tranformed into a massive disco cathedral. The seats on the main floor are gone, and what once the right and left banks of seats are replaced with huge stacked levels for those who chose sitting over standing. Most of us are on the floor, which it tighter and brighter and noisier. The disco beat plays, and yes, there is a DJ. The action takes place on moving platforms that slide and rotate during the performance. Unsung heroes (in the fact that they don't sing) are the jump-suited attendants with glowing sticks (called aircraft marshalling wands, I have just discovered) that keep the groundlings from being crushed by the action.

Here's the not-quick summary: Imelda is poor, romances and is rejected by Ninoy Aquino, rising young senator. She goes to the big city, has a whirlwind romance with Marcos (who in the real world is 40 years her senior, but here is just a bit older), marries him. She is Jackie to Marcos' JFK, and tries to do good, but is swept up in the heady drug-fueled seventies and betrayed by her cheating husband. She returns to pick up the gauntlet when Marcos gets ill (lupus) and effectively runs the country with an iron hand, claiming to know what's best. Her old boyfriend Ninoy returns in her life as a leader of the opposition - she has him imprisoned, exiled and is assassinated upon his reveiw, but his shooting kicks off the revolution that causes her to flee the country.

It is a potted history of the Phillipines, shrunk to 90 minutes and shown through Imelda's eyes. She is is betrayed time upon time, and feels that the wounds she has suffered justifies her actions. Her costume over time becomes more armored and military as she becomes the Steel Butterfly. Even at the end, she feels betrayed by the people she felt she served in the name of love. 

That sense of betrayal spreads to the audience as well, as the the rousing back-beat and line-dancing becomes a demand to party as the military rolls in, the cities burn, and martial law descends. The feel-good optimism of the early play becomes dark as the audience is forced to uncomfortably condone the heroine. There's a moment when it dawns on each individual (a different moment for each audience member) that this is going down the wrong path, and their encouragement is demanded.

All that said, it is a powerful performance. All the singers are fantastic and the ensemble is frenetic as they change supporting roles at an instant. Jaygee Macapugay is a beautiful, fragile, convincing Imedla. Mark Bautista is Marcos with a seducer's smile. Byrne's style of lyrics comes out fully with Conrad Ricamora, as the white-suited (no subtlety here) Aquino. Melogy Butiu is Estrella, the childhood friend left behind and the reminder of the world Imelda no longer is part of. They are fantastic, throwing everything they have into the performance.

The musical ends (spoilers) with Imelda fleeing the People Power Revolution, but in the real world, its not that easy. Marcos is dead, but Imelda has returned to the Philipines and is a senator for her home district. Two of her four children (shown in pictures but not referenced in the performance) are heavy hitters in politics, and the family fortune, built up from all the corruption, is involved in the recent Panama Papers scandal. Yet that is not the happiest of endings for the people of the Philipines, and the play ends with the positive sense of finality of the revolution and a reprise of its main song.

This is spectacle. This is an event. This is one of those plays that long-term theater goers and those who avoid such traditional forms of entertainment should see. Well worth it.

A final review of this season: Here Lies Love wraps up the Seattle Rep's season (which is just as well, because they have to put all the seats back, now). And the season has felt like a time machine this years. We started in the late 50s with Raisin in the Sun, jumped to the AIDs crisis in the 80s with Roz and Ray, jumped a few years more years to the Post-Queen Elizabeth era of King Charles III, back to the 70s with Vietgone, rolled through the Great Depression with Woody Sez, jumped into a weird interior mindspace of the 60s with Well, went contemporary with Dry Powder (the only one I really didn't care for) and then wrapped up with the 60s-80s in the Phillipines. This was a very political, wide-ranging season, and the Rep did a damned fine job. Theater as Tardis. Looking forward to what happens next year.

More later. 

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Small talk with David Byrne

The Lovely Bride and I (along with 47 others) had dinner with David Byrne at Canlis. Let me explain what that means and how that happened. Yes, there will be copious links to help out.

As the kids today say: Pics or it did not happen.
David Byrne was the lead singer/songwriter for Talking Heads, a new wave band of the late seventies and eighties. And while I was a fan of the Talking Heads, I really particularly loved his music from Knee Plays, of which the Lovely Bride had a copy. We are not sure where the cassette came from, but we think it came from a mutual friend who was into such things as Brian Eno, Jon Anderson, and Peter Gabriel-era Genesis. Suffice to say, we had the album on an old tape cassette and I knew most of the lines by heart; the music was New Orleans brass band backing up the simple and quirky wordplay of the lyrics.

OK. So. Big fan of David Byrne's work (more recently, he's been recording with St. Vincent). And one of his latest projects, Here Lies Love, will be wrapping up the season at the Seattle Repertory. We won't see it until next week, but (spoilers from the meal), the early previews are doing well. Here Lies Love is the story of Imelda Marcos, First Lady of the Philippines, set to a disco beat. In fact, they have converted the venerable Bagley Wright auditorium into a discotheque for the performance. More on that, again, when we see the performance next week.

Anyway, the Rep had sent out a fundraising flier for a dinner with David Byrne. As long-time subscribers, we got the postcard, which we normally pass on. But this time, the Lovely B, having missed a number of things because it is tax season, decided we should take them up on it. So, we made an (embarrassing large) donation for dinner at Canlis with David Byrne.

The private upstairs room at Canlis.
Ah, Canlis. People in Seattle know about Canlis. It is our legendary top restaurant, the place for big anniversaries and important celebrations, the one restaurant in Seattle where one is expected to wear a suit and tie (I discovered later that evening that the Columbia Club used to have this restriction until recently as well, but has slacked off at the tie thing). Nestled at the southern end of the Aurora Bridge which crosses the canal to Lake Union, Canlis commands a view of the Lake, the ship canal to Lake Washington to the East, Fremont and Wallingford, and the U-District in the distance. The view is wonderful, and the food, which has gone through a couple incarnations in the time we've been there, is legendary.

And, there is a main dining room, and a private room with an even better view directly above. This smaller space has large wooden shutters that can be opened to the dining area below, or closed for more private functions. I had never climbed the stairs to this area, though the Lovely Bride had snuck off during one dinner to explore (the staff caught her, and since there was no function upstairs at the time, gave her the full tour). So, a private function at the priciest joint in town. We arrived slightly early and we were ushered up the stairs.

These excellent photos courtesy of Seattle Rep, by the way.
And I met David Byrne. Lean, grey-haired, bright-eyed, dressed in a powder blue suit with an American flag on the lapel. He was standing next to Braden Abraham, the art director. At the time, I thought he was art director for the production, but eventually, the penny dropped for me  and I realized he was the Art Director for the entire Seattle Rep. So that was a bit stunning. I introduced Kate first, then myself. Handshakes were made. Kate moved on towards the bar for a mojito, Braden faded back into another discussion, and David Byrne and made small talk.

And here's the thing. In my very small modicum of fame (blessedly limited to gaming conventions for the most part), I have met fans who have squeed over my very presence, been dumbfounded at my words, or sought to argue some point of a project I worked on several decades previously. And I want everyone to know, that I completely understand those attitudes. Because as we made small talk, cocktail talk,, the back of lizard brain was shouting My God, I'm Talking to David Byrne! 

We talked about the process that brought Here Lies Love to Seattle, I told him I was a great admirer of his work. We talked about the weather (after constant rain since October, we were blessed with a beautiful beautiful day). We talked about seaplanes. He admired my trilobite pin.We spoke briefly of on-line comics. Others came up the stairs, and, my moment passed, I thanked him again and made way for the newcomers (it always being bad form to bogart the Guest of Honor).

Just a wonderful photo of the Lovely
Bride and I.
And, delighted (that was David Byrne!), I moved off and talked with other guests. By the time Kate returned I was chatting with Darragh Kennan, an actor I had seen at the Rep who was serving as a rep for the Rep that evening. Darragh had been Sherlock Holmes in two productions at the Rep, and we chatter about our long-standing season tickets at the Rep, favorite plays, theater in Milwaukee and elsewhere. Servers circulated with wine, and later hors d'oeuvres. When Kate could not have the steak tartar because of her allergies (a mayonnaise aoli), they retreated and reappeared a few minutes later with a sample that was egg-free. They're good that way.

We mingled. I declare that I am not a social animal, but I do like to listen, and ended up spending time with an expediting engineer who handled programming problem children, a retired couple whose apartment we could see from the horizon, and a UW geologist who had written a book on roadside geology (he, too, was curious about why I would wear a trilobite on my lapel). The Rep had a photographer present, so we did get pictures.

David Byrne takes questions from the floor.
Dinner was a limited menu but completely up to Canlis's standards. Five tables of ten. Ours had Darragh, Braden (alas, I missed my chance to recommend that, since they were ripping out seats at the venerable B-W, they could replace them with recliners), the retired couple, a psychologist working on his dissertation, married to author who writes books on investing. And a couple, the husband of which I had little chance to talk to, but whose spouse worked for Wells Fargo and was part of the Arts Fund, and who worked for one of the OTHER Jeff Grubbs in the universe. Dinner was a perfect filet mignon for me and a flaky halibut for the LB, but out attention was on the discussion, not the food. 

David and Braden gave a brief talk on Here Lies Love, answered a few questions, and had to leave for a preview of the production that evening. We chatted among ourselves -art and politics (Imelda Marcos is still with us - no, she has not seen the musical), and adjourned some time afterward. Kate and I had booked a room in Seattle, overlooking the new site of the Museum of History and Industry, and the next morning brunched at Salty's on Alki and wrapped up a wonderful 24 hours in Seattle, a vacation without a plane trip.

And yeah, people are going to catch me smiling at work for the next week  for no obvious reason.

More later,