A sure draw for any true-blue fans of the stage, Rent is the perennially popular Broadway version of the opera La Bohème by Giacomo Puccini. It swaps Puccini’s original setting of 19th century Paris for Manhattan’s East Village circa 1989, a locale rife with starving artists, long suffering lot-squatters, and victims of the HIV virus.
The innovation of the play is its nonchalant handling of what were unspeakable, taboo subjects at the time it takes place, not only AIDS, but also homosexuality and anti-business ideals. Intrepid filmmaker Mark Cohen (Noah Putterman) lives in the apartment with depressio roommate Roger Davis (John Arthur Green), together they are the story’s anchors. Roger is a musician who seeks not the delusions of grandeur expected from a transplant to New York, but just to make that one special song before he succumbs to illness. The majority of the characters are afflicted with HIV or AIDS, and the audience sees the toll that it takes on them over the course of a year.
Around Mark and Roger, we meet Tom Collins (Maurice Verrett Johnson), who steals every scene with his versatile and captivating voice, and his new transvestite paramour Angel (Tyler Hardwick). They are the most entertaining and endearing characters on the stage, as a consequence of the good writing, the audience gets wrapped up in their tender story. There is also Mimi (Kalyn West), the junkie neighbor who brings conflict into Roger’s life, He tries his hardest not to let his feelings call the shots. That is until he learns that she is also HIV positive, and soon their romance ignites. It comes and goes in waves, though, never as passionate and believable in the middle as it is at commencement and conclusion. And last but not least, after the whole first act of only hearing her name, Maureen (Mackenzie Bell) appears. Mark’s exgirlfriend and Joanne’s (Phyre Hawkins) current flame, she’s hysterical and effective as the exhibitionistic manipulator who stages a protest in the squatters’ lot next to Mark and Roger’s apartment.
Unfortunately by the second act, it becomes more difficult to tell who is pursuing which path, as every character seems to be vying for the audience’s attention as opposed to sharing the stage graciously as they had in the first act. Collins and Angel are still just as sweet and engaging, but Maureen is only there to bicker with Joanne. Mark seems to have sold out, though that’s never quite made clear exactly how (is he a news camera operator? A TV personality?). Roger becomes the most muddled, between his romance with Mimi and his resolution to move to Santa Fe (again, never made clear if he moved out there and returned or if he was all talk from the beginning). But this is not a case of confused stage management, but rather that it’s a play with a lot on its mind, containing many different messages for the audience to interpret, some of which may ultimately be lost.
The saving grace in the moments of confusion is the creative production design, including immaculate stage lighting of the characters, impeccable performances from the musicians backstage and creative use of props. The only technical complaint would be that at the beginning and after the intermission, it took the sound engineer a moment to get the audio channels at the right level, so the audience could understand the lyrics and hear the music. But these are minor compared to the highly empathetic performances given by the cast. A very enjoyable performance put on by the talent at Casa Mañana.