“Bohemian Lights” at HERE Arts Center (Closed November 23rd, 2014)

November 16, 2014 | Off-Broadway | Tags:
After Ramón Valle-Inclán’s ‘Luces de Bohemia’
Adapted by Live Source with Fernando Gonzalez
Directed by Tyler Mercer
Presented by Live Source
Reviewed by Sander Gusinow
Theatre Reviews Limit

The first red flag of Live Source’s “Bohemian Lights” (currently at HERE Arts Center) came during the curtain speech. The audience was informed of the cultural significance of the show they were about to see, as if to preemptively warn us we’re imbeciles unable to fathom the genius about to ensue. The play, adapted from the Ramón del Valle-Inclán script of the same name, concerns the blind, degenerate poet Max Estrella who starves to death during the collapse of Franco’s Spain. The poet suffers under the jackboot of oppression, feels the heartbeat of the downtrodden, and dies as a final ‘up yours’ to a society that wouldn’t acknowledge his relevance. Although Max Estrella may have been an unrecognized diamond in the rough, the same cannot be said about this ostentatious production.

Director Tyler Mercer embraces the concept of ‘theatre as a meal;’ unfortunately, his is overcooked. Racy choreography, misplaced musical numbers, and overreliance on multimedia smother the sixty-minute montage. Behind the actors, a cluster of flat screen TVs depict the scenes onstage reimagined in modern Manhattan, perhaps to inform us Bohemian culture is still alive today (not exactly news to anyone seeing a play in SoHo). Although on-screen projection can often serve a theatrical purpose, here it’s a poor marriage. Television seems alien in this bright-light, bare-bone Bohemian aesthetic.

The action of the piece is brash and one-note. The actors deliver their decadent prose either howling like timber wolves, smiling with Cheshire-Cat grins, or staring ominously into space like they’re watching a car accident. There is real talent nestled in the cast, however. Ramón Olmos Torres (“SMASH”) gives a gripping, heartfelt portrayal of a political prisoner who knows the guards plan to kill him. His characterization of Estrella’s foppish young rival is equally as captivating, but rather because of his bombasity and comedic charm. Gerianne Pérez is a triple-threat virtuoso; her luminous song and dance proves welcome and refreshing. When she and Torres have work to do, the play finally finds a rhythm.

But “Bohemian Lights” falters not because of a lack of talent, but lack of gravity: a mismatch of form and content. The show strives for fun instead of thoughtfulness; the rare scenes of poignancy are out of place in the blinding, Bohemian onslaught. The play is so convinced of its importance it often misses the chance to convey this importance. Do not get me wrong; the plight of the working class is important. The social responsibility of art is important. But this garish assault on the senses isn’t up to the challenge. Although I applaud their ambition, the lights got in their eyes.