When the ZACH Scott folks invited me to see Dave Steakley’s take on RENT, which is currently playing on the Kleberg Stage, I had mixed feelings. I love Dave’s vision and am always thrilled with his directorial choices. But RENT? I’d seen the traveling production of the show earlier this year at Bass and while I didn’t flat out hate it, it hardly grabbed me. There were times – more than a few—that the Bass show felt really dated, too over-the-top (I know, I know, it’s a Broadway musical, Spike—by definition over-the-top.) I let my love of Dave’s work overrule any trepidation I had about seeing the show again, and so soon, and accepted the invite. I’m sure glad I made the choice.
Before I drill down here and drone on with my thoughts about RENT’s writing, lyrics, and the test of time it presents, let me talk specifically about what works in the ZACH production. Yet again, we have further proof that this city is crawling with magnificent talent. RENT is cast marvelously, with strong performances delivered across the board. I think ensemble pieces are such tricky business and performers have to walk that fine line between what surely must be a desire to standout and something more crucial to the show’s success: keeping balance among the group.
They did it, they really did it— John Pointer as Roger, Andrew Cannata as Mark, Roderick Sanford as Tom Collins, Steve Williams as Benjamin, Kristen Bennett as Joanne, Joshua Denning as Angel, Verity Branco as Mimi, Ginger Leigh as Maureen, and Lara Wright (in several roles.) (Note: The night I saw the show Verity Branco stood in for Karma Stewart as Mimi and gave no clue that she was an understudy—she totally delivered.) They sang and danced their hearts out, and the casting choices are excellent.
While the show’s success at ZACH owes so much to these excellent performers, something else really made it work. Steakely tapped Michael Raiford for set design and Raiford is to be commended for transforming the entire theatre into the performance space. RENT takes place mostly in a loft in NYC, but sometimes the action moves outdoors. Because the theatre is small, and because Raiford utilizes areas beyond the actual stage, we the audience feel like we are in the loft ourselves and also on the streets of NYC. This, I think, is the major differentiator between the Bass version and the ZACH version. The former, by virtue of being presented in a massive space, did not convey intimacy. ZACH’s production offers attendees a chance to feel like they’re roommates of the characters.
Particularly of note is a pyramid of old TVs that dominate the loft and are used during certain scenes to beautifully underscore and enhance points in time, convey deep emotions, and even create a sense of season. Steakely’s timing is so impeccable that he does not overuse this device, though the temptation must have been there. Thus when images do flash across the screen, it’s powerful—we don’t get desensitized as we might if he over-employed the screens.
Which brings me to content. Part of what makes RENT feel dated – which has nothing to do with the ZACH show and everything to do with how fast things have changed since it was written— is that it occurs back in the early days of HIV/AIDS. Though it’s not like AIDS is some conquered, yesteryear plague that we can safely ignore— hardly— it is true that the disease has been around long enough, and been in the news often enough, that knowledge of it is common. Does the specter of AIDS still invoke rampant homophobia in some quarters? Absolutely. But, for example, I consider myself at 19, when AIDS was first emerging and was new and terrifying and entirely blamed on the gay community. And I vividly remember all the attendant turmoil of that—the finger pointing, the protests against the finger pointing. Then I think of my son— now 19— and his peers and I realize that AIDS has been around longer than he has been alive, and that these kids have grown up knowing about it and that many of them have had information delivered by parents and educators that my generation never could have dreamed of hearing about from conventional sources.
This got me thinking hard during and after the show, which follows the lives of several friends and lovers, young people struggling with art and AIDS and the landscape of youth trying to “make it” in the Big City. Two of the three couples happen to be gay. Oh, and there’s the payphone. Now, a payphone might seem like a minor thing, given the major themes of RENT. But bear with me as I try to explain how very important this phone is to the show, not only as a device of catalyst that sets the story in motion, but as a brilliant sign o’ the times.
Because the show was written and debuted before a lot of our current technology was widely available (cell phones, home computers, Internet, wifi)— but with society on the cusp of these things, the buzz of them in the air— the phone also serves as a symbol of how the old school is soon going to give way to something new. Further underscoring this—Tom Collins is a “computer genius,” which, in ’94, was saying something.
Okay, here’s where I attempt to tie together gay relationships and pay phones. Listening to some of the dialogue and the lyrics (which at times are pretty fucking sappy), it’s really easy to slip into that feeling I had when I saw RENT at Bass—this thing is dated, it’s not really working for me. But seeing it at ZACH, feeling a much deeper intimacy conveyed by being so close to the actors, and by having the actors do such a great job, it dawned on me. RENT, done right as it is here, is more like a time capsule than a dated work. It’s a glimpse into the none-too-distant past (a time that happens to coincide with my own bohemian youth, which means that scenes such as Maureen’s performance art piece, plus all the sleeping around, not to mention the endless parade of groovy tights the characters wear really take me back to the good-old-punk days in which I came of age).
What struck me most is this: I’m sitting in a well-appointed, well-endowed theatre that attracts an audience that likely includes a lot of folks who shower on a regular basis, have day jobs, mortgages, and sundry other trappings of conventionality plus the ability to pay for not cheap play tickets. These people are old and young, black and white, gay and straight. And that’s when it clicked for me.
Here we all are, enjoying this story, some rabid fans having seen it enough times that they are lip-synching the lyrics. But no one is batting an eye at the fact that two out of three romances are man/man and woman/woman. They aren’t affronted in the least by Angel, a drag queen. If anything, they might be wondering—where the hell did ZACH get their hands on a payphone?
Which is to say that if RENT was cutting edge when it first played Broadway—if people went to see it because it portrayed characters, themes, and a disease that were at the time utterly foreign and marginal— it’s anything but that today. And that is not a bad thing. It’s an incredibly good thing. It’s an amazing thing.
Look, I’ve been a fag hag for more than half my life. My son was raised, in great part, by a group I like to call the Wild Pack of Gay Men. I used to joke that if the kid had to come to me when he was sixteen and break it to me that he’s straight, I’d still love him, no matter what. But I was ahead of the curve on that one—not alone, not by a long shot, and I had plenty of good company in this liberal city of ours. But overwhelmingly, a mere twenty years ago, the fear and ignorance around being gay was horrifying to most people.
Sadly, the gay thing remains politically charged in too many places around the country and around the globe. Look at the headlines—the gay kid that just jumped off a bridge a few weeks ago after being taunted by his roommate. All the gay kids who still feel ostracized, who stay in the closet, who live in fear, who hate themselves. Gays who are imprisoned for trying to live out of the closet in countries where being gay is illegal—as if.
Oh we have such a long way to go and it makes me so sad that we are this ass-backward, even now, in 2010. And yet, though progress is painfully slow, still there is some progress. Forget about cell phones and emails for a minute and think about this: lots of people who maybe couldn’t wrap their heads around the whole gay thing in 1994 are now paying money to see a musical with AIDS at its center. (There were a couple of really old women in the front row and I spent a good part of the evening watching their faces for signs of distress or disapproval thinking surely they must have been raised to think all this stuff was “wrong.” I found no sign of distress, just joyful immersion in the show.)
There are all sorts of reasons to see RENT at ZACH. As I suspected he would, DS once again takes a well-loved show and makes it his own, makes it fresh, reinvigorates it. There are more than a few moments that are utterly poignant, in particular those exploring the dynamics between the lesbian couple and the gay couple, though these dynamics aren’t hinged at all on their sexuality—the straightest audience in the world could relate easily to the struggles of these couples because such struggles are universal to all of us
For me, one of the most gripping moments of all came in the instant that that old SILENCE = DEATH logo flashed across all those TV screens. I was transported back to when that slogan first arrived on the scene (Wikipedia suggests 1987). How radical that was back then. How true it remains today. And that is the political importance of RENT—it continues to speak, doesn’t fade away, won’t be silent. In the end, any parts of the original dialogue and lyrics that tempted me toward an eye roll were supplanted by this overriding message, summed up so succinctly and starkly—at once silent and screaming— in that message on all those screens, all a part of Steakley’s grand vision.
So thanks, Dave. You made me see the beauty in RENT. Another stunning feat.