November 18th, 1974. After forty years of a brutal dictatorship, Francisco Franco lies close to death and Spain is on the brink of anarchy. In the midst of this chaos, Max Estrella, a blind, unemployed poet, ventures out into what will be the last night of his life. In this his final journey — his dark night of the soul — he experiences all that is grotesque and cruel in Spanish life: the heartless divide between rich and poor, the police brutality, the political oppression, the alienation and, from Max’s perspective, perhaps the most damning sin of all, indifference to the artist and his art. But Max Estrella, literary genius of Spain, has no choice but to face Madrid’s darkness; he must find money to feed himself and his family as they are literally starving.
LIVE SOURCE’s adaptation of Ramon Valle-Inclan’s 1920s play Bohemian Lights fifty years on in 1974 is a smart choice as it infuses the narrative with an updated frame of reference. Although a major figure in Spanish literature, Valle-Inclan’s work is not well known internationally and LIVE SOURCE’s presentation at the Here Arts Center performance space marks the U.S. English language adaptation premiere. It is also quite likely the first performance interpreted through a multidisciplinary approach – theater, film, music and dance. But as tied to a specific time and place as this production of Bohemian Lights is, one can, unfortunately, easily connect its episodic horrors to 2014 and that is precisely what makes this version of Valle-Inclan’s political work so powerful.
The story begins when Max, at home with his wife and daughter, is visited by his drinking companion Don Latino whose job it was to sell Max’s books to the local bookseller and get money for food. When Don Latino comes back with only three pesestas, Max realizes he’s been cheated, and he and Don Latino return to the bookseller determined to demand more. But, of course, they arrive too late. The books have been sold and three pesestas is all there is. From this point on, Max and Don Latino wander the night, heading first to a bar where they drink themselves into a stupor which eventually gets Max arrested. In jail, Max befriends a doomed Catalan anarchist who believes, “the revolutionary objective must be the destruction of wealth. It’s not enough to just behead the rich – someone else will always take their place…We must destroy the old order.” Max, touched by the young Catalan’s passion, sympathizes with him, recognizing that both of them have had their humanity shredded by the system.
Intensifying the effect of Max’s sometimes non-sensical odyssey is LIVE SOURCE’s integration of film into the performance. While the play unfolds on stage, directly behind the actors, multiple television monitors screen a filmed version of the play in synch with the on-stage performances. But it is not simply a duplication of what is going on onstage. The filmed version employs different actors and is set in what looks like the streets of New York. Periodically the action on stage appears on the monitors as well. This juxtaposition fragments the narrative to brilliant effect, dividing it into real and surreal streams of experience. These parallel streams mirror Max’s distorted experience in a dark, surreal world he no longer “sees” as his own or even wants a place in.
As the rest of Max’s wanderings unfold he goes from jail to bureaucrat’s office to café and out onto the streets. Any flickering of humanity he experiences – a prostitute who acknowledges him for the poet he is – is overwhelmed by the nightmare of what Spain has became – a place of street riots that end with a baby shot dead in its mother’s arms. By the time Max is at death’s doorstep he declares, “This life is an inferno…I’m dying of hunger. And yet I am content at not having played a part in this tragic masquerade.”
As despairing as Bohemian Lights is, there is a great beauty to it as well. Part of this is thanks to the suggestive synergy between the mix of theater and film but also due to the way the dramatic episodes are so elegantly connected through dance (flamenco-like), music (acoustic guitar) or both, conjuring up Spain’s soul more powerfully than words alone could achieve. At the heart of this production is a cast that is top-notch from start to finish with Jorge Morales-Picó as Max, Jesse Friedman as Don Latino and Gerianne Pérez as Enriqueta. Each delivers a performance perfectly harmonized to the material.
With the expert support of Tyler Mercer’s direction and Jose Rivera Jr.’s choreography, Bohemian Lights offers a fresh night of inventive theater of the best kind. By reconfiguring the play as a multidisciplinary experience, LIVE SOURCE has achieved what Valle-Inclan intended: a kind of grotesque beauty he called esperpento. And as Max says towards the end of the play, “The Esperpento…The tragic Spanish life can only be seen through that deformed aesthetic.” The play may embody a deformed aesthetic but the light shines through in this imaginative production.
Through Sunday, November 23, 2014
HERE Arts Center
145 Sixth Avenue (enter on Dominick, one block south of Spring)
Photos by Rachelle Klapheke:
1. Gerianne Pérez, Jorge Morales-Picó, Jesse Friedman
2. Gerianne Pérez, Daniel Capote
3. Jesse Friedman
4. Ramón Olmos Torres, Jorge Morales-Picó, Daniel Capote
5. Gerianne Pérez