Pay Attention To Rent

When you first heard about Rent coming to Tampa, you may have thought, “Gee, if I wanted to look at the lives of people who can barely make ends meet I’d just videotape my roommates in our apartment.” Or perhaps you brushed it off entirely because you can pick it up from Blockbuster any time you like for a cheaper price than going to see it at the theater.

No matter what reason you came up with for passing it up, you’re cutting yourself short.

For one thing, I doubt your roommates break into song and dance over their financial woes. Most importantly though, you’re missing out on getting a chance to live “La Vie Boheme.”

The play doesn’t start with the typical grandeur of dimming house lights and the parting of two velvet curtains. The main character, amateur filmmaker Mark Cohen (Jed Resnick), wanders onto the stage in the fully lit theater and announces he’s ditching his script in favor of filming life as it happens.

As he makes this announcement, it appears the stage crew is still setting things up on stage behind him, and a few audience members are still hunting down their seats. This is meant to underscore the idea that the play is about following a group of people as they go through a year in their lives without glossing over a second of it.

An industrial, urban setting adds to the gritty, raw tone Rent sets. There are no set changes throughout the play, as it relies mainly on a trifecta of dialogue, acting ability and lighting to distinguish each new setting. Artificial candles dimly light the stage, letting the audience know when the actors stepped into their apartment (they couldn’t afford electricity). Also, actors would often announce where they were heading to avoid confusion.

Sticking to the bare-bones theme, there aren’t dazzling props or eye-catching costume changes either. The focus is on the storyline – on the characters’ way of life – not mindless titillation.

That’s not to suggest Rent is lacking in the entertainment department. The characters are constantly running and dancing across the stage to accentuate their points, especially in numbers such as “Today 4 U” and “Rent.” A live band remains partially hidden on the far left of the stage, adding a powerful rock vibe to dilute the formal theater atmosphere.

While the actors’ inflection at times made it hard to understand what was being said (this was primarily when people were “leaving messages” on Mark’s answering machine), their collective delivery was mostly flawless. When Mark’s former roommate, Tom Collins (Warren G. Nolan Jr.), speaks of his departed lover, Angel (Ano Okerra), his voice quivers and sounds choked as if he’s struggling to hold back tears. His voice emanates an aching sense of loss, which serves as the touching climax to the end of Angel’s battle with AIDS.

Nolan and Okerra have such strong chemistry that the focus of their relationship isn’t about the fact they’re gay. On the contrary, their acting transcends gender lines so one simply sees them as they are: two people who find strength in the face of adversity through their love for one another.

Meanwhile, Mimi (Arianda Fernandez), the girlfriend of Mark’s roommate, Roger (Bryce Ryness), had a distinctly exotic-sounding voice that set her apart from traditional singers. At times, however, while singing solo, her voice seemed to crack and grate on the ears. She made up for those moments with a fierce attitude and punchy, confident dance routines.

Rent isn’t a sugar-coated escape from reality; it’s a glimpse into another lifestyle – one you’re invited to be a part of. The entire play pulses with energy and feeds off its audience, such as when Maureen Johnson (Tracy McDowell) protests the destruction of Mark’s apartment complex and encourages the audience to “moo” with her. Also, the audience is encouraged to clap and sing along to “Seasons of Love,” which is probably the play’s most well-known song. These interactions make you feel more a part of the play itself, rather than just a spectator, which is something that’s hard to recreate when you’re watching the cinematic version.

Considering its collectively strong cast and powerful use of music, my only real complaint about Rent is that it’s being evicted from the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center too soon.

Grade: A-