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Monday, July 30, 2012

AIDS, Anarchy, and Survival — A Review of "RENT" at The 5th Avenue Theatre

When Jonathan Larson's rock musical RENT debuted at the New York Theatre Workshop in 1994, it brought the subject of HIV/AIDS to the stage. That was the same year during which approximately 49,600 Americans died of this disease. Four of the principal actors in Larson's cast had been diagnosed, with effective medications still two years away. Even as they acted and sang, they faced death.

Mark (Daniel Berryman) and Roger (Aaron C. Finley) in RENT at The 5th Avenue Theatre.
Photo: Tracy Martin
That kind of relevancy in a time of intense fear and moral judgement led to the spectacular success of RENT and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama it won the following year. It quickly reached the heights of acclaim, and Broadway, where it ran until 2008. Now Seattle's 5th Avenue Theatre presents a revival of RENT July 21 through August 19 and this begs the question of whether or not people still care about its original themes.
Producing Director Bill Berry believes they do. He wants to give viewers the profound experience he had when he saw it decades ago. RENT still tells the story of a group of young artists, writers, actors, and musicians—some straight, some gay—living a Bohemian lifestyle in an abandoned building in Manhattan's Lower East Village during the late 1980s, the height of the AIDS epidemic. The story begins on Christmas Eve. They still have no heat, still can't pay the rent, and face eviction, even while many of them are weakened by the disease. It's a relatively simple plot but holds powerful messages.
The cast and director of RENT at The 5th Avenue Theatre: Jerick Hoffer (Angel), Aaron C. Finley (Roger), Bill Berry (director of RENT), Naomi Morgan (Mimi), and Daniel Berryman (Mark).
Photo: Mark Kitaoka
"Rent is the musical that defined a brand new generation of theatergoers and has since become an anthem of youth, vitality, and rebellion," Berry said in a press release. "But more than anything, this is a musical about survival and about embracing every moment as thought there will never be another. I think that's why it has such universal and timeless appeal."
The company of RENT celebrates “La Vie Boheme” at The 5th Avenue Theatre.
Photo: Mark Kitaoka

Berry didn't need to worry about relevancy when he directed, with such perfection, the delightful musical First Date—which debuted at A.C.T.—A Contemporary Theatre in April 2012, a co-production with The 5th Avenue. Everything about that smart, witty and very current comedy guaranteed a hit. But in some ways, RENT is just as current. HIV/AIDS hasn't gone away. Neither has the rebelliousness and risk taking among our nation's youth. And the idea of young lives being cut short remains as tragic as ever.

In these days of the Occupy movement, high unemployment, deep divisions in politics and ideologies, and a general sense of frustration, we find ourselves surrounded by evidence of the gaps between rich and poor, culture and counterculture, young and old, the powerful and the powerless, government and anarchy. That evidence pervades our national consciousness.

Mimi (Naomi Morgan) and Roger (Aaron C. Finley) in RENT at The 5th Avenue Theatre.
Photo: Mark Kitaoka
Beyond the important themes, this presentation's artistic merit makes it well worth the price of a ticket. I loved the dramatic lighting which added so much ambiance to the sets, both so suggestive of life in a loft. I applaud the costume designs and choreography. Casting choices included the liberal use of amazing talent of an appropriate age, much of it local, giving Rent the "youth and vitality" of which Berry says the musical has become an "anthem."

Aaron C. Finley as Roger in RENT at The 5th Avenue Theatre.
Photo: Mark Kitaoka
Those strong young voices met the demands of the score, generally speaking, and with exceptional power and poignancy in some cases. In both singing and acting, Aaron C. Finley, as Roger Davis, and Naomi Morgan, as Mimi Márquez excelled, especially on Davis' One Song Glory and their shared performances on Light My Candle and Without You. In the story, both characters suffered from AIDS, and Mimi from addiction, meaning they knew they had little time together, even as they fell in love.

In spite of that drama, I could not romanticize these young characters to the degree some might.  Although I appreciated both their desire and their right to pursue the artistic life and be true to who they were, at times, my practical side wanted them to quit defying convention, grow up, take better care of themselves, and find more security for their own sakes. But the tragedy of their lost futures moved me deeply, not only as a human being with compassion, but also as a parent.

And that brings up one of several problems. I could not relate to the characters representing the parents, all of whom seemed terribly stereotypical and shallow  in the intermittent "voice mail" segments. Whereas I would normally appreciate the contrast between seriousness and humor, in this case the humor often came across as just plain silly and superfluous, adding extra bulk to a production that bogged down at times during its three long hours. In addition, those three hours contained too many moments that seemed like dramatic climaxes, but weren't. By the end, I felt at least as drained by the length and intensity as I was appreciative of the messages. But the acting and singing deserve praise.

Mark (Daniel Berryman), Collins (Brandon O’Neill), and Angel (Jerick Hoffer) in RENT at The 5th Avenue Theatre.
Photo: Tracy Martin
Charismatic young Jerick Hoffer, as the transvestite, Angel, and Brandon O'Neill (one of my favorites from First Date, Saving Aimee, and Guys and Dolls) as Angel's lover, Tom Collins, both gave excellent performances. So did Daniel Berryman, as the young videographer Mark Cohen, and Ryah Nixon and Andi Alphadeff, as the Lesbian couple, Maureen and Joanne, respectively. Logan Benedict made a great Benjamin Coffin III. All of the many "East Villagers" in the cast did an excellent job, but I wished I could have seen and heard Heath Saunders in a major role. There is something about his expressive face and wonderful voice that make him stand out as a magnetic presence on the stage.

Angel (Jerick Hoffer, center) and the company of RENT at The 5th Avenue Theatre.
Photo: Mark Kitaoka
From the moment I first saw the young Bohemians living the life of squatters in a vacant building, I felt sad and a bit depressed because I knew the dreams of many would turn out to be illusions, especially in the face of the epidemic. But I enjoyed their moments of laughter, sense of unity, and their youthful energy. And I appreciated the reminder that life is often harsh, always too short, and filled with human frailty that requires our compassion. Most of all, this story communicated the power of love to quell hopelessness, the different ways people find to connect and survive, and the importance of each day of our lives. In that respect, this revival of RENT is a great victory.

Tickets start at $29.00 and can be ordered by phone at (206) 625-1900, at the box office at 1308 5th Avenue in Seattle, or online through the online box office.


Anonymous said...

Not to snub you or anything, but "Rent" was definitely not the first play about HIV/AIDS. "The Normal Heart" premiered 9 years prior, and that was only the first to garner major acclaim.

Candace Brown said...


Thank you very much for enlightening me on this point. I have made the correction but will let this comment stand because I want readers to know I appreciate their contributions of more thorough or accurate information. I want Good Life Northwest to stimulate conversation. We can all learn. I always aim to be completely accurate and carefully check my sources, but apparently I misinterpreted this bit of information. I apologize to everyone.

Thanks again,