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Not quite "imeldific," but the East West Players' "Imelda" is a worthy, if flawed take on the First Lady of the Phillipines.
“Does the story of the First Lady of the Philippines go beyond the shoes?” is the question that begins the short blurb on the play Imelda -- currently having its premiere run at the East West Players theatre located in Little Tokyo -- at the theatre’s official website. It is also the question that haunted me after seeing the play, only to realise that the cause for its haunting me is the fact that it is not the only question that one can pose regarding the larger-than-life biography of Imelda Romualdez Marcos. The fact that the play’s narrative takes the aforementioned question from which to present Imelda’s life is the source of the play’s weaknesses in the midst of the simple yet colourful and vibrant production values and the genuine collective talent and enthusiasm of the lead actors. Nevertheless, what surfaces throughout the play from the one question mentioned above is the sincerity with which the multi-ethnic creative team and cast present a period of Philippine history to be absorbed in the public consciousness, on their terms: a pop biography.
The play begins interestingly enough in the heart of the Philippine folkloric and pre-colonial past with the invocation of the tribal chief Lapu-Lapu, who defeated the Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan when he and his cohorts attempted to extend their expedition from the island of Cebu to Mactan, where he met his death. In this context -- stylistically dark and sober in comparison to the rest of the play -- Imelda Romualdez is presented, leaving the spectator, however remotely acquainted with Lapu-Lapu’s belligerent exploits, wondering about the possible connection between a tribal chief generally considered to have defended the Philippines from imminent Spanish colonisation and a woman who became the First Lady of the CIA-backed dictatorial regime while espousing programs of cleanliness and beauty -- even going so far as to declare Maynila as the “City of Man” -- even though surrounding her was constant poverty. This first instance of incongruity is indicative of the overall multi-genre approach of the play, from immersing itself in the rightly dramatic moment of Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino Jr.’s assassination by Marcos’ people, to the light-heartedness of singing pop songs when Imelda goes to New York to shop, to the patriotism and demand for justice incarnated by Corazon, Ninoy’s widow, that led to the EDSA revolution and to the comical and parodical “courtship” between her and Ferdinand.
The constant weaving from genre to genre, despite the title’s byline that places Imelda in the musical genre, thwarts immediate spectator identification -- especially for those who do not have any prior knowledge of Philippine history. The three women who ease in and out of the play’s narrative and serve as both extras within the play’s scenes in Imelda’s life and as extra-diegetic commentators/narrators, on the one hand, decrease the seriousness of the political mechanisms that plant Imelda, chronologically speaking: she is all at once, a stubborn, precise, yet uncultured girl -- represented when she and Ninoy have a picnic and elaborate on their dreams -- a victim of ambition -- when during the lightning-speed courtship between her and Ferdinand, she accepts his proposal on the basis of attaining political and cultural power -- a dictator of taste -- expressed when she offers Ninoy the opportunity to go to New York (the grand place to shop) as a self-imposed exile -- and a repentant, but still ambitious woman -- when after Ferdinand’s death she returns to the Philippines (after having fled with Ferdinand to Hawaii in 1986) to curry the people’s favour.
On the other hand, the so-called “Dream Girls”'s constant presence on the stage as continual commentary on what is being seen by the spectator hearkens to the chorus of Greek drama that serves as both a narrative and self-reflexive device, provoking new and different questions from the one that begins this review from the spectator of not only the play’s content but also of the chosen mode of transmission: the stage -- to be more precise, the musical stage. When asked why he chose Imelda Marcos as the subject of a musical, artistic director, Tim Dang replied, “The perception of Imelda Marcos is one that is filled with beauty, ambition and controversy… Her famous and now infamous choices in life make her an ideal subject for musical theatre. Her story has unique cultural elements, the gamut of emotions and, most of all, an entertaining personality of iconic proportions.”
Make no mistake that the play does not leave any pair of shoes on the wayside in order to present the spectrum of emotions that was/is Imelda’s life. (‘Is’ given the fact that she -- along with her two children Ferdinand Jr. and Imee -- is still in the political field as the governor of Leyte, her hometown.) Would Imelda herself find the play “Imeldific” indeed if she were to see it? (“Imeldific,” the play points out, being one of the words that Imelda coined, aside from already-mentioned titles such as the “City of Man.") Liza del Mundo as the “Asian Evita” is wonderfully charismatic, bringing the highs and lows of the “gamut of emotions” that Dang saw in Imelda’s life in the first place. Able to turn from a scene of self-parody in the mock beauty pageant to that of sorrow and pity at Ferdinand’s deathbed or when she recovers in the hospital after being stabbed in an attempted assassination, del Mundo’s energy prevents the play from falling flat. In turn, co-stars Giovanni Jose Ortega (a recent MFA graduate from UCLA, no less, who plays Ferdinand), Antoine Reynaldo Diel (as “Ninoy”) and Philippine-Canadian Myra Cris Ocenar (as Corazon, or “Cory”) reveal just as much talent in the pop-political world brought to life -- music by Nathan Wang, lyrics by Aaron Coleman. In particular, Diel’s booming, melodic voice and pathos-driven performance carry the nationalistic spirit that Ninoy personified for the Philippine people during and post-Martial Law.
If anything, it is the satiric (albeit affectionate) aspect of the play that succeeds, as it is in tune with the pop approach taken by the East West theatre. When Imelda sings on a blue modern art piece of a chair about her and her husband’s administration, she is flanked by two men wearing orange construction uniforms: when they turn their backs to the spectator, the silvery lettering of “CIA” expresses the CIA’s role in the establishment of Philippine Martial Law and it is to its credit that the play’s openness to the various opinions of what actually happened with Imelda and Ferdinand during that period end up portraying some of the layers of political institutions at home and abroad (read: United States) that helped and continue to shape the way one thinks of Imelda as a concept, and what one associates with her and Ferdinand’s exploits.
Another character motif in the play is Imelda’s mother, who from time to time appears atop the stage from a terrace, crocheting and personifiying the image of goodness and innocence that Imelda, little by little, loses as she comes to take center stage in (the politics of) the Philippines. An attempt to get at the core of Imelda Romualdez Marcos the person, beyond the concept? Perhaps, and if so, the intermittence of Imelda’s mother’s appearance does not suffice to penetrate the stereotypes that the play employs to present Imelda. Refusing to box the narrative or its characters inside one specific approach to present the life of Imelda, the issue of whether or not her story goes beyond the topic of footwear is surprisingly resisted by the constant motif of shoes that appear to serve as a thematic crutch to the narrative. Surely there were and are other means to present a woman that peels away the layers upon layers of representations to uncover a human being? Imelda shows some of the phases/faces of Imelda R. Marcos, as well as her relationship with Ferdinand -- the existence of a genuine love between them glimpsed only in the scene of Ferdinand’s death -- but unfortunately, despite del Mundo’s fine performance, at curtain’s end she remains a puppet-like concept, the importance and sometimes danger of her political role as ambassador to China and Libya in the '70s being overlooked.
That she remains an image can be seen in the promotional poster for the play: Imelda’s face with olive-green eye shadow flanked by a lemon-yellow background is entirely a rendition of Andy Warhol’s silk-screens of Elizabeth Taylor, Mick Jagger, Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley -- pop culture icons who, dead or still alive, have long since become buried beneath numerous representations. In this sense, tackling Imelda was tricky. That the play exists to showcase the community of undeniable talent of Philippine-American actors -- who are in need of challenging, multi-layered roles in all media -- makes it successful and worthwhile. Mabuhay.
For other literature on Imelda, see Howard Ho’s “For ‘Imelda,’ the shoe fit,” in Los Angeles Times, 8 May 2005; Ruben V. Nepales’ “And now, ‘Imelda,’ the musical,” in Philippine Daily Inquirer, 14 March 2005; “The Shoe Queen” in American Theatre, May/June 2005.
For information on performance dates and tickets, go to www.eastwestplayers.org.
1. It is said that Lapu-Lapu’s victory over Magellan and company “set back Spanish colonization…by more than 40 years.”
2. Among other films made during Philippine Martial Law (1972-1981), Ishmael Bernal’s Manila By Night critiques heavily Imelda’s city programs. Upon release of the film, the film censorship board (more or less one of the many extended sections of the Marcos administration) required the title to be changed to City After Dark and to bleep out the word “Maynila” every time it comes up in the dialogue in order to be screened, unwittingly pointing out the connection between the administration and media. See Bienvenido Lumbera’s Pag-akda ng Bansa (Quezon, Philippines: University of the Philippines Press, 2000).
3. I employ the term “transmission” here as Fredric Jameson understands it with regards to finance capitalism in correlation to the abstraction of physical/currency value of spaces and representational forms that has come with globalisation: meaning and value has become “abstract by virtue of [the already abstract language/manner of] transmission.” “The Representations of Globalisation: the Case of Neuromancer.” Lecture at UCLA, 10 May 2005.
4. Favre, Jeff, “Move over ‘Evita,’” in Ventura County Star, 5 May 2005. See http://www.venturacountystar.com.
5. Lupang Hinirang: Kasaysayan at Pamahalaan, edited by Monina Olavides-Correa, Olivia M. Habana, Ma. Angelica G. Verzosa and Virgilio C. Galvez (Pasig, Philippines: Anvil Publishing, Inc., 2002).
Date Posted: 6/9/2005