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Artfully curated by Culturadar

< Musician Tomas Doncker talks SPEAK | Main | A chat with SummerStage's Curator of Dance >

July 11, 2013

Spotlight on HERE LIES LOVE's Maria-Christina Oliveras

HERE LIES LOVE, the electrifying and acclaimed new musical by David Byrne and Fat Boy Slim just celebrated its 100th performance at the Public Theater. It is the second longest running show in the theater’s history and has been a hit both with critics and audiences.
Telling the story of Imelda Marcus through an immersive, multi-media production, HERE LIES LOVE has been one of the hottest tickets in New York since it began performances—largely because director Alex Timbers has created a dynamic, infectious 360 degree experience that makes it impossible not to engage with the show in some way.  It’s an extraordinary and unforgettable evening at the theater.
Although it is very much an ensemble piece, we couldn’t help but notice cast member Maria-Christina Oliveras, who with her throaty, soulful voice, ballsy performance, and rock star attitude, is hard to ignore.  Her show-stopping “Men Will Do Anything,” an audacious number where she taunts Imelda with images of her husband’s infidelities, is one of the highlights of the evening.  Our blog editor, Nella Vera, spoke with Maria-Christina about her experience with the show, working with red-hot director Alex Timbers, and performing in a show where the audience is dancing right alongside you.

Culturadar:  Tell us about the show. How is HERE
 LIES LOVE different than other shows you've done before? 
Maria-Christina:  The show is a 360 degree all-immersive theatrical, multimedia, musical experience—a hybrid disco/pop/rock “party”/concert, tracking the rise of Imelda Marcos from her early days in Leyte through the airlift of 1986.  It is truly unlike any other show I have done—not only are we singing, acting and dancing, but we are also engaging with the audience in a number of ways that completely obliterates the fourth wall.  Alex joked that this is a cast of quadruple threats.
CR:  What was it like to work with a legend like David Byrne? 
MCO:  Humbling.  My level of respect and admiration for him continues to grow exponentially.  The more I get to know the breadth of his work (the man does it all), the more I am in awe of his genius.  He is so deeply, unnervingly authentic, and an amazing, kind, considerate collaborator and human being.  Seriously, the man was making us fresh ginger tea nightly during previews! 
CR: You've worked with Alex Timbers before.  Tell us about the previous projects and what's it like to work with him.  
MCO: This piece is particularly special to me, as Alex and I have known each other and worked together for almost 15 years.  I love working with him.  He is so deeply smart, but has a wickedly base sense of humor too—the raunchy dork that I am revels in this combo.  He also always has delightful references, and will readily cite Shakespeare or Robert Wilson and Sponge Bob and “Zoolander” within one breath. 
Beyond that, Alex is amazing at manning the ship, and empowering everyone in the room to do their best (wranglers, stage hands, designers, actors, et al).  He has such a specific vision, and is always looking to provide the safest space and structure within which to PLAY.  With him, I know I can go 500% balls-to-the-wall and run with choices, trusting that he will temper and adjust, as necessary, to serve the piece best. 

CR:  What was the rehearsal process like for this show?  
MCO:  I have been a part of the development of this show for a little over 2 years now.  Our first workshop was in a very small room at NYU.  We did the first third for an invited audience.  They were so game to have us experiment with them, as we attempted to define the vocabulary of the piece.  We explored the second third at PS 122 (in a slightly bigger room where we were able to incorporate platforms, multimedia, and more movement and choreography.)  We did the whole piece up at Williamstown last summer.  The entire process was really progressive and multi-layered. 
It was one of the most gratifying rehearsal processes that I have ever been a part of.   We were given the freedom and resources (Thanks to Jenny, Oskar and Maria, and everyone at the Public and Williamstown!) to discover what the piece was, and to subsequently explore what methods of storytelling would serve it best. Numbers were added and shifted throughout.  One of my favorite moments was hearing “Star and Slave” for the first time, which David composed during the second workshop. Our interaction with the audience was a particularly fun exploration.  How do we engage people, without making them feel self-conscious or put on the spot?  How can we really get them swept up in the action of each scene, while feeling safe?  How do we fully manifest this notion of immersive, 360 degree theater?   We tried lots of different things—highlights include tossing rice, serving “champagne” and cupcakes, and showering the audience with money.  It really was such a blast.  Everyone in the room was so open to trying new things and tossing out ideas and just making choices to see what would work best.  It was an ideal environment.  I think everyone loved the material and really believed in the piece, and that love, care and investment translated.  
CR:  Tell us about performing in a 360, interactive environment.   Any interesting stories about dealing with the audience all around you?  
MCO:  It is truly electrifying and so energizing.   It’s why I do theater…because we are all in the same room, breathing the same air, changing the energy, AFFECTING each other physically, emotionally, mentally, viscerally. I get multiple highs during the show every performance.  Seriously, it sometimes takes me 3 hours to come down from the energy of the show.  It is thrilling to see the audience: fear and delight at being on camera, rock out and dance; sing; gawk with confusion and awe at the full-surround sensory stimulation; cringe during the riots; jump in “Church” and at the club… we have also have had quite a few people who have very strong feelings and complicated relationships to the Marcoses or Ninoy or the Philippines, and it is always great to have their perspective and reactions.
We’ve had quite a few adventures—fire alarms during the show, audience members getting ill, debauchery, folks refusing to move, couples publicly displaying affection thinking that no one sees them, and hecklers but these are generally exceptions, and it is live after all—never a dull moment, in the best possible way.

CR:  What are your particular characters like?  How would you describe these characters and do they have something in common?  How has your background prepared you for this show? 
MCO:  Originally, I was cast to play Imelda’s mother, Remedios.  Her big number, “Precious Little Children,” was a song on her deathbed, having Imelda promise to take care of Estrella for all she has done. The number was preceded by a beautiful song called “Every Little Drop of Rain,” a duet between Imelda and Estrella showing them in their impoverished beginnings.  Both of these were fully staged, and Annie B. had stunning choreography incorporating buckets and breathtaking gestures, as she does.  It was one of the first fully realized sequences during the development of the piece.  However, these numbers kicked off the show in a tone that ultimately didn’t serve well, so the beginning was completely re-vamped days before our performances up at Williamstown.  My character was subsequently cut, and “Here Lies Love” replaced this sequence.
As far as my current characters in the show, I play multiple, which I love doing.  Many audience members have asked me about my “soloist character,” because I seem to serve a very specific function, particularly with the number, “Men Will Do Anything.”   It’s always fun to hear people’s takes.  Some of the highlights:  I am Imelda’s alter ego, mind, id, conscience, spirit guide from Hades, Tina Turner, “soul” track, among some other really creative spins.  It is subject to interpretation.     Because I was there from the beginning, my particular track developed and evolved with each workshop.  I will say, I see much of my soloist character as a hedonistic lover of life, highly reactive, fiercely protective of Imelda, and always ready to fight for what she wants:  to get her leader elected, to kick off a party,  to transcend the deep betrayal of infidelity.  I see her as one of Imelda’s trusted advisor, and at times, literally, one of her ladies in blue. 

CR:  Most of the actors, except a couple, play multiple parts and everyone seems to be working really hard! How did everyone's parts get assigned?    
MCO:  Because the show was workshopped over the course of two years, there was a progressive discovery of how all the elements fit in.  As the vocabulary became clearer, and numbers were explored and fleshed out, “tracks” became clearer.  I think the piece naturally evolved around people’s energy, talents and strengths, and the sheer technical, choreographic and musical demands of the show. 

CR:   How are audiences reacting to the show or to the staging?  What do you hope that they will take away from the show?
MCO:  The audiences have been absolutely extraordinary.  It’s one of those pieces where, even the most ornery and reluctant, are ultimately affected by the end of it.  They may have a little extra hop in their step or a twinkle in their eye and most are inevitably smiling and on board.  And if they’re not, I think the show, at the very least, gets people thinking. That is one of the joys of doing it—tracking the audience’s evolution and energy with us, and seeing the immediate effect of giving people the freedom to let loose and dance and sing, while giving them a little bit of Pinoy history and a little perspective on a woman in power.  It is truly infectious.
What do I hope they will take away? The same thing I hope with every piece I do—some sort of change.  An experience.  A feeling.  A thought.  A new way of looking at musicals and entertainment.  An interest in the Philippines.  In Ninoy.  In the Marcoses.  Anything that expands their sense of self.  A good time.  A great first date launcher.  Hugging.  Kissing.  Feeling Good.  Humming along to David Byrne and (re-) discovering his brilliance.  Being blown away by the genius of Timber’s staging, and David’s sets, and Clint’s costumes, and Peter’s video design, and Justin’s lighting and Annie B’s choreography and Kim and Justin’s musical stewardship and Cody and Mutt’s sound design and the extraordinary stage movement of the crew and wranglers.  Any or all of those things.  Indifference is the only thing that I would hate.  I cannot imagine that though—even if you are pissed about having to stand for 90 minutes, it will make you think about theater…and perhaps, how maybe you should have read the sign that said you will be standing for 90 minutes.
CR:  What's next for you after HERE LIES LOVE?
MCO:  I have been out of grad school for 6 years now, and in that time, have dedicated myself to developing new plays and musicals.   A number of those projects are coming to fruition at various stages, which is really exciting—details to come.    I also just shot a small role in the new Cameron Diaz romantic comedy, “The Other Woman,” directed by Nick Cassavettes, which will have a 2014 release.  In August, I will be shooting a scene in Theodore Melfi’s upcoming feature, “St. Vincent de Van Nuys,” starring Bill Murray and Naomi Watts.   And, in the midst of all that, I will be guest teaching acting at Yale, contemplating getting a dog and another plant or perhaps a jar of sea monkeys and a chia pet, and hopefully vacationing at some point.
HERE LIES LOVE runs at the Public Theater through July 28.  For tickets and information, visit

Production photos by Joan Marcus.

Nella Vera is the editor of the Culturadar blog. @spinstripes 

Posted at 9:46 PM

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