Carlos Celdran is a fabulous storyteller. The charismatic performer projects an air of warmth and humor that draws the audience into his well-crafted solo show, Livin’ La Vida Imelda. Presented by Ma-Yi Theater Company and smartly directed by Ralph B. Peña, the piece is both entertaining and educational as it paints a multilayered portrait of the former First Lady of the Philippines, Imelda Marcos.
Celdran frames his remarks as chismis, or gossip. This is not to say that he doesn’t care about facts. The show is obviously well researched, and was actually born out of Celdran’s experience as a tour guide in the Philippines. However, the writer/performer is as much interested in the mythology surrounding Imelda as he is in the documented details of her life. And sometimes the line between the two is blurred.
He dishes about the scandal surrounding the 1951 Miss Manila beauty pageant, which Imelda officially lost. However, she was able to persuade the city’s mayor to award her the crown, anyway. There’s more than a suggestion of impropriety surrounding the birth of her first daughter Imee, including the rumor that rising Congressman Ferdinand Marcos—whom Imelda married after a courtship lasting less than two weeks—was not actually the biological father. Celdran also delights in telling the audience about Imelda’s schemes to marry off Imee to none other than Prince Charles.
A central thesis within the show is that Imelda’s primary contribution to the Philippines was utilizing art and culture to create a brand for the country that could be leveraged as political power. A significant portion of the performance is dedicated to Imelda’s passion for architectural projects, starting with the Cultural Center of the Philippines, designed by Leandro Locsin. Celdran argues that this gave the country an entrée onto the world stage, even as it created questions about the accessibility of these spaces to the average Filipino and the lengths to which Imelda would go—including paving over the bodies of dead construction workers—in order to demonstrate an outward appearance of perfection.
Celdran displays both admiration and critique of Imelda. At times, he seems sincerely impressed by her achievements. A recounting of Imelda’s crucial role in getting Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi to stop funding the Moro National Liberation Front’s efforts to set up a separate Islamic state within the Philippines is presented in a fairly complimentary manner. And yet, this story also glosses over any reasons for why the Muslims in the southern region of Mindanao felt discontented.
However, there is no mistaking the anger that accompanies Celdran’s discussion of the human rights abuses that followed President Ferdinand Marcos’ declaration of martial law. One of the most moving moments in the show has Celdran standing silently, back to the audience, staring at the projection of a long list of names of Filipinos who were tortured, disappeared, or executed during the Marcos regime.
Designer Hannah Wasileski is responsible for the spot-on projections, which also incorporate photographs, newspaper articles, and drawings. Also making an impression is Fabian Obispo’s evocative sound design, which helps set the tone with an eclectic range of musical selections as well as the sounds of helicopters, collapsing buildings, and more. A particularly nice touch is cutting off Celdran’s microphone during a segment chronicling the initial declaration of martial law.
At show’s end, Celdran reminds us of Imelda’s continued relevance, especially now that she’s back in the Philippines and an elected member of the House of Representatives. He has a cynical view on Filipino politics, but his well-informed perspective may make you consider events from the country’s last few decades in a different light.
Livin’ La Vida Imelda is presented by Ma-Yi Theater Company at the Clurman Theater at Theater Row (410 West 42nd Street) through November 23. For more information, visit ma-yitheatre.org.