by David Grzelak
Donít you hate it when you canít place the name with the face? RENT puts faces to the issues and relationships of the 90ís on the backdrop of survival and not-so-quiet desperation in the age of HIV.
Set in the low rent district of New York City, pretty boy musician Roger (Manley Pope) and independent filmmaker Mark (Christian Anderson) face the threat of being kicked out by their ex-roommate turned landlord Benjamin Coffin III (Dwayne Clark) on Christmas Eve.
Roger, who along with a majority of the cast is an HIV+, Gen Xíer, preoccupies himself with leaving a legacy before he dies. Pope sings ONE SONG GLORY with the passion dipped in despair that his character struggles with. As Roger wants to write "one song, glory, one song to leave behindÖfind one song before the virus takes glory," others want something more basic.
Drag queen Angel (Shaun Earl) bursts onto the stage in diva fashion donned in a Santa jacket and zebra-striped bike pants. The towering Tom Collins (C.C. Brown) becomes Angelís focus and vice-versa. TODAY FOR YOU captures the feel of new love with this HIV+ couple.
The tension between hope and grim reality manifests itself in the first act. Gordon (Daniel J. Robbins) is a secondary character that delivers a primary line. Being HIV+, the clean-cut prep proclaims in spotlight, "Reason says I should have died three years ago." And as Roger falls in love with junkie Mimi (Simone), one of their on stage duets represents the mindset for this generation, "Thereís only now, thereís only here. No day but today." Pope and Simone perform this bittersweet ballad with the tenderness that Earl and Brown do a short time late in IíLL COVER YOU ("Be my lover, and Iíll cover you").
As the cast meets at a cafť to protest the shutdown of the apartment that houses most of them, the fun of the uptempo dancing on the tables and pure joy of the cast performance stops cold when a characterís beeper goes off and signals an "AZT break". The company performance of LA VIE BOHEME/I SHOULD TELL YOU dramatically ends the first act.
The shorter and more powerful second act opens with the company performance of RENTís trademark gospel tinged SEASONS OF LOVE ("Five hundred twenty five thousand six hundred minutesÖhow do you measure a year"). Plot resolutions begin happening fast and furious: Mark ponders and eventually takes a network contract and poetry slammer and head protester Maureen (Amy Spanger) and lawyer Joanne (Sylvia MacCalla) fall in love after flirting/fighting throughout the play.
The second most gripping moment of RENT came courtesy of smart production. Three tables earlier used as cafť tables provide three vignettes where on one table Roger and Mimi reconcile after fighting, Maureen and Joanne lay together after reconciling, and Tom comforts Angel who is dying from AIDS on a table dressed up as an emergency room table. As Tom carries Angel off, the company performs an abstract act, throwing a sheet over themselves and simulating two people having unprotected sex. When the act end with a cast member saying "Itís over," Tom steps on stage and proclaims, "Itís over."
After the eulogies for Angel, Tom leads the company in GOODBYE LOVE. As Brown sang with a voice matching the power of James Ingram, the only other sound in the theatre emulated the entire audience simultaneously catching the sniffles.
And after Mimi is found near death, cold and homeless, but survives, the finale reestablishes that you donít own your life. You RENT.