By Joseph Cortes, VERA Files
It is hard to describe Carlos Celdran's "Livin' La Vida Imelda" as theater.
There isn't much in terms of plot or narrative in this performance. What you get is a highly personal dissection of the myth and mystique of First Lady Imelda Marcos and the ramifications of the dictatorship imposed by her husband President Ferdinand Marcos during their tumultuous reign during the Seventies.
The fact that all of this is based on gossip, hearsay and public knowledge cautions you from believing every word Celdran utters. But that he is able to lay down his arguments succinctly makes his point of view a viable one. It is up to the audience to believe him or not.
Which begs the question: why is "Livin' La Vida Imelda" part of this year's National Theater Festival, presently ongoing at the Cultural Center of the Philippines until Nov. 18, 2012? Because, in its very essence, it is theater. Never mind that only one man does the talking. It is a lecture masquerading as a theatrical experience.
Carlos Celdran is known for his unusual walking tours of Manila, which are highly opinionated and entertaining, to say the least. This work is based on his script for a walking tour of the CCP Complex he offers. It places each building within the area in a historical perspective. Since the development of the entire complex was based on a plan by Mrs. Marcos to bring culture and arts to Filipinos, his script frames the entire cultural development of the country on the life and times of Mrs. Marcos—and almost everything else that she touched on.
The CCP performance, which is based on two previous theatrical incarnations of this script, which premiered at Twist Gallery in Toronto, Canada in 2011 and at Silverlens Gallery in Makati City in March 2012, has been transformed into a cabaret performance with the addition of a Greek chorus of sorts of mimes and dancers. The whole show is punctuated by music from the Manila Sound, the trademark soundtrack of the Seventies era that reinvented American Top 40 for the New Society's youths. And Celdran's clear book of photographs gets extra help from an audio-visual presentation that serves as a backdrop for the show.
The performance is billed as "Performed by Carlos Celdran," which is a clear description of what you can expect from this show. Trust the man who thought of Imelda's role in Philippine society and why she remains a fixture in the minds of every Filipino to be the best advocate, nay, performer, of his work. Every word, every inflection, every gesture, every exhalation is delivered with conviction: he knows what he is talking about. And even if the cast of extras—who are on stage mostly to mouth the quotes, some of them imagined, that Celdran delivers—were taken out of the show, leaving the author with a slideshow presentation-cum-monolog, people would still surely come to see this show: you no longer have to walk around the CCP Complex to hear Celdran talk; you now find yourself comfortably seated in the air-conditioned comfort of Silangan Hall at the CCP with a full service snack bar at the back offering sandwiches and drinks for those needing a bite and sip as they absorb every word that he says.
And this show is really all talk; for what is at the heart of each theater performance but talk? The life of Imelda Marcos, from her childhood in San Miguel, Manila to her growing up years in Olot, Leyte to her various successes and scandals—think of the Miss Manila pageant and Manila Mayor Arsenio Lacson, soft porn actress Dovie Beams, the 1974 Miss Universe Beauty Pageant, tobacco heiress Doris Duke and Hollywood actor George Hamilton, and Libyan strongman Moammar Ghadaffi—get dissected with Celdran's signature razor-sharp wit.
Before you think this is a diatribe on Mrs. Marcos, think again. Celdran acknowledges the upsides and downsides of the Marcos-led regime. It is telling that of everything the author discussed in his show, only one detail has been adequately discussed and verified by media: the so-called Manila Film Center collapse, which led to the deaths of a number of construction workers who were accidentally buried under quick-dry cement.
Nearly 30 years after that fateful incident, he talks of broadcast journalist Howie Severino's effort to trace each of the seven fatalities in the accident. With all victims accounted for, a call for families of other victims in the accident was started through tri- and social media. No one came up to give their side of the story.
And Celdran declares that of everything imputed against Imelda following this accident—talk of bodies chainsawed and plastered over just to rush the completion of the Film Center in time for the Manila Film Festival in 1982—if Severino's documentary is to be taken as correct, none of these were true. Which makes him ask the question, how much of what we think we know about Imelda is true?
Public service and celebrity are kith and kin. While Mrs. Marcos might have been disliked by a lot of people for her successful effort at social climbing, how much of what is passed on about her is gospel truth? The human rights atrocities of martial law are not to be forgotten; so is the Marcoses attempt at enriching themselves. But Celdran does see the Marcoses as the product of the cold war era, when democracy and communism were at war, and the Philippines was the United States' biggest ally in Asia. And while they might have maximized the privileges of the presidency, they did so with the consent of the American government, the same way it encouraged other dictatorships in Asia to flourish.
Photos courtesy of http://celdrantours.blogspot.com and http://culturalcenter.gov.ph
"Livin' La Vida Imelda" will have performances at Silangan Hall of the Cultural Center of the Philippines until Dec. 1, 2012. All performances start at 7 p.m.. For ticket reservations and inquiries, call Lesley at 0920-9092021 or e-mail email@example.com.
(VERA Files is put out by veteran journalists taking a deeper look at current issues. Vera is Latin for "true.")