Friday, May 18, 2012
Some plays age well, and some don’t. The 1960s play The Lion in Winter remains fresh and politically crisp, though its topic is medieval machinations of the twelfth century. Dating to the 1930s, Our Town’s simple conceit manages to work in nearly every production I’ve seen. In 2009, I saw a fortieth anniversary production of Hair that won a Tony Award for Best Musical Revival, and in Chicago in 2011, I witnessed a
vibrant production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? at the Steppenwolf Theatre that could exist beautifully as a contemporary piece. These plays sufficiently prove that in the hands of a gifted director and a talented cast, any play can feel refreshingly topical.
I’m not certain in what category Rent falls. There are ardent fans of Rent who identify with its captivating tale of life in the New York City’s Lower East Side in the late 80s and early 90s where AIDS, HIV and the specter of death dominated the scene. I must confess that even with all the theatre I’ve seen, I went into this musical with a clean slate, knowing nothing other than that it was a famous 1996 play that won a Tony
for Best Musical, introduced the world to the incredible Idina Menzel, and ran for twelve years. Now that I’ve actually seen the production directed by Blaine Peltier, I can admit that my slate is still relatively clean; I only gleaned a portion of what the play is about. This play might be a gem but it’s hidden by extremely poor lighting, suffocated by a loud band, and hampered by unheard lines and inexcusable direction that stopped all
comprehensibility. This play had flickering moments of warmth, but an oppressive coldness and inept direction robbed all characters of the likability so crucial to this play’s success.
Speaking of cold, let me begin with the lighting. Nearly every lighting decision undermined any affection we the audience should have had for these characters. I know the play calls for the lights to be dimmed because the renters have not paid the bills, but it would have been nice to see the characters, but large swaths of the cast were plunged in virtual darkness. Several times when the entire cast stood on stage, two-thirds were
visible—barely—and one third on stage left was usually lost. When enough light snuck onto the stage, it came in two varieties: stark white, making all people look like bloodless vampires; or stony blue, making the characters seem more facile than they already were. These white lights were also positioned directly above the characters, whose facial expressions were lost when they wore a hat or a knitted cap. In one particular scene, Roger and Mimi are embracing, but in that cold blue spotlight, they might as well be ice skaters who hate each other. In one song, the blue lighting illuminating the stage suddenly changed inexplicably to golden sunshine, but before the song ended, everything reverted to the cheerless blue. And while some actors have an innate ability to find the spotlight, this cast resembled a new breed of moth that abhors the limelight, and I grew weary of watching actors lit from their chin down.
When it came to character development, the heart of this play’s appeal, there was little on display. This play’s success hinges upon the audience believing that these characters are fundamentally linked to each other. No one formed a believable person, with the exception of theatre majors Andre Trahan and David Huynh, who came close to creating human characters. The rest don’t know how, and it’s really not their fault; they have neither been trained nor shown how. I constantly questioned character motivations, why Roger felt for Mimi, why Joanne felt for Maureen, why anyone felt anything for anyone. (And it’s really hard to identify actors and their roles when there is no program.) The connection between Roger and Mimi was non-existent, and the inspiration for Roger to interact with Mimi—stopping her from buying drugs from a dealer—is not the foundation upon which great relationships are made. All of these characters are supposed
to be close, but with the exception of Angel and Collins holding hands occasionally, I saw no evidence they cared for each other, unless it involved a crucial death. Mark’s life depends on that camera that is his lifeblood, but after a few songs, the camera disappears. And there are no words to describe the characterization of Maureen, who gave a completely bizarre monologue that made me wonder why a character from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest had suddenly invaded this play. If she was directed this way, it’s a travesty; it she wasn’t reigned in, then the director didn’t do his job.
On a good note, the band was excellent, so excellent it drowned the characters singing and most of their exposition that explained who was who and how they knew each other. I understood some lyrics only by listening to the people around me who, as diehard fans, were reciting with the cast. Even those people felt the cast should have had body microphones. (There was a moment of incredible liveliness in “Tango Maureen,” a sassy, spunky song between Mark and Joanne that would have been even better had they actually been taught a proper tango.) Benny’s relationship to Mimi, to Roger, to, oh, anyone was a complete mystery as the music obscured almost all explanations. There were characters who offered jobs and who stood in as certain characters’ mothers, but those bits were lost in the general malaise. There was a protest, but who it was for and who it was by, I couldn’t tell you, and if I have to look it up on the internet, then the
director has failed miserably at his job.
Concerning the play’s blocking, nothing made much sense. Mark upstaged Joanne in a crucial moment early in Act I, Roger and Mimi in Act II were standing with the entire cast, when they should have been on the ground holding each other dearly, and Mimi sang crucial lines to the back brick wall when she stood on the stairs. Angel’s death scene inexplicably took Collins offstage, and if he’s Angel’s lover, I’m very surprised
he left, unless it was for Mimi to sing her solo alone. Angel should have been sitting up instead of lying nearly horizontally on a table, and the show’s signature song—“La Vie Boheme”—should have brought the house down, but I kept focusing on the characters jumping up and down on that somewhat flimsy table. In mass scenes, Peltier had the characters wander aimlessly, symbolic of the lack of direction from which the entire
I could go on, but I won’t. When people undertake to do what they consider a play of social significance and charge a hefty price for it, then they should all approach it with respect and hold it to a high standard. On the whole, that was not done, and no matter how hard the actors tried—which they did—the responsibility for this lies on Blaine Peltier’s shoulders. It might not be fair to compare this play to another equally relevant production called Normal Heart, which honestly explored the beginning of the AIDS phenomenon, but it also grounded the play and the audience in the time period of the 80s. The audience understood the relationships, how the gay characters had to weave their way though life with great care as the disease ravaged their community. The characters were earnest, heart-braking, and the deaths in that play never felt manipulative, as they did in Rent. Near the end of the play, Collins, in a rare moment of true emotion done nicely by David Hunyh, said, “I can’t believe this family must die.” From the very beginning, I never believed this was a family at all, and I’m still waiting to see what Ben Brantley in the New York Times called a “charming, poignant rock opera.” Rent may be a great musical, but under Peltier’s direction, its grand spirit never soared in this poorly-lit reincarnation.
---Vincent P. Barras