With so many plays onstage at the height of the theater season, it’s taken me a while to find a chance to see Venice Theatre’s Stage II production of Rent, which opened two weeks ago. The good news is that, judging from what I saw, the large, mostly young cast has lost none of their energy and passion for the piece.
The bad news: The main emotion that comes through, at almost any time here, is anger. Now, of course there was plenty to be angry about in Jonathan Larson’s vision of New York’s Lower East Side in the late ’80s and early ’90s—homelessness, addiction, and most prominently, the shadow of AIDS. But there’s also love, devotion, creativity and friendship to celebrate in Rent, and those feelings don’t come out as clearly as that predominant one of loud outrage.
Perhaps that sense of being assaulted by anger is emphasized because in the small environs of the Pinkerton Theatre, and in the way the set is intentionally designed (by Kirk V. Hughes), you are very much in the middle of the drama and tension and can’t get away from it for a second. Sitting behind a chain link fence, with the actors occasionally within a fingertip’s reach, audience members are definitely drawn into the Sturm und Drang.
The play includes characters based to some extent or other on Puccini’s originals in La boheme: the starving artists Roger (Evan Glantz) and Mark (Dorian Boyd), the seductive but ailing Mimi (Geena M. Ravella), the AIDS-stricken drag queen Angel (Jonathan Hall), his lover Tom Collins (Charles McKenzie), the friend-turned-landlord (Mark Mercado), the flamboyant performance artist Maureen (Rebecca Phippard) and her lesbian lover Joanne (Lauren Kelly). Performances vary in quality, with Phippard, Kelly and Hall perhaps faring the best; but there’s no doubt all of the actors believe strongly in what they’re doing.
Director and choreographer Brad Wages has done a mostly good job in staging this demanding musical given the restrictions of the space, although those less familiar with the storyline of Rent may have trouble following some of the action and keeping the time frames firmly in mind (it’s sometimes hard to distinguish dialogue or lyrics, and things do move along very quickly). For RENT-heads (as devoted fans of this show call themselves), that won’t be a problem.
Rent continues through April 11; for tickets call 488-1115 or go to venicestage.com.