Phoenix Theatre’s production is technically flawless. Every singer – lead to ensemble – hits every note with ease. The scenic design and lighting perfectly set the scene. Despite all that, however, I had trouble believing that some of these characters weren’t just angsty caricatures left over from a defunct CW show. I can’t say whether that’s a result of direction, actor interpretation or a mixture of the two but it certainly took me out of the moment – something I consider a cardinal sin in the theatre.
Mark – the documentary filmmaker – is too hip for a character who is supposed to be hiding behind a camera. A camera, by the way, that he never REALLY looks through. He uses it like a prop for a performance artist. Rather than fading into the background and disengaging from the often heartbreaking circumstances he witnesses – and records – daily, Mark wields his camera to draw attention to himself.
Roger, who resembles nothing so much as an emo Sugar Ray, only has one setting: emo-angsty-wanna-be rocker. Which is a pity. Roger shouldn’t be played like an over-entitled jerk. He’s damaged and he’s afraid to get back into the world. But unless you’ve seen “RENT” before, you wouldn’t get that from this performance.
Twice, once in the first scene and once during “La Vie Boheme” characters pause to take their AZT. Both times, they drink from disposable water bottles. Now, that not seem like a big deal to you, but the first big musical number in the show, “RENT” is all about just how impoverished these characters are. They’re squatting in an old sheet music factory, keeping warm by burning found paper in an illegal wood burning stove and they get stolen electricity by way of one heavy-duty electrical cord coming in through the window. While it’s a sensible decision to protect the stage, microphones and set from an accidental water spill, I was pulled completely out of the moment when those water bottles appeared. For most of us, feeling “broke” means cutting back on luxuries but never going without necessities. These characters, however, would never spend what little money they had on store bought bottled water when free water is readily available.
Those complaints aside, the ensemble numbers were tremendously powerful. By the time “Life Support” started (almost halfway through the first act) the audience was heartily engaged with the characters and the story. During “Over the Moon” – Maureen’s absurd performance art protest piece – the audience readily participated when called to “moo with me.” By now the show was really rolling and the audience was heartily engaged. They welcomed “Seasons of Love” the second act opener with cheers and applause, rather than the traditional hushed, respectful silence that marks the end of intermission.
The second act of the show moves quickly, and for me, had less alienating moments from the characters. Perhaps, it’s because in the second half of the show the issues are less class-focused and more universal. Losing a loved one – no matter how long the association and no matter the cause – is something we can all relate to. We all know what it is to love someone but push them away because of some arbitrary circumstance. We’ve all thought at some point that it would just be easier to drop everything and start over somewhere else. Somehow, though, no matter the distance we travel we are still the same person at heart – something Jonathan Larson captured beautifully in writing this show.
Beyond the obvious meaning of “rent” as in “to lease” the word also means “torn.” No matter how much our technology changes, our humanity is universal. Whether you’ve seen and loved “RENT” before or it’s new to you, Phoenix Theatre’s production is well worth seeing.
Phoenix Theatre’s production of “RENT” runs through September 15th. Tickets start at $30 each. As mentioned earlier, the show deals with socially, politically and emotionally charged material so think twice before bringing children. For more information visit phoenixtheatre.com.
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