Jonathan Larson’s Rent originally premiered Off Broadway in 1996. Inspired by Puccini’s La Boheme, set in New York City’s East Village in the early 1990s, it tells the story of a group of young people fighting for their swiftly fading bohemian community in the face of AIDS, poverty and death.
Shaun Rennie’s inventive direction reimagines the well-trodden show whilst remaining true to its Off Broadway, grungy roots. The production’s staging is unique and daring, often with high reward This is perhaps best sent in the boisterous ensemble numbers like “Rent” and “La Vie Boheme.” The former harnesses the anger and drive of the characters and catapults us into the urgency of the show, whilst the latter brings out the elements of joy and community within the story.
Lauren Peters’ set design ingeniously captures the grit of New York city streets, with bare brick walls and scattered piles of discarded junk. A Perspex sheet is cleverly used in various scenes to add to the overall effect; we are transported to a warehouse-like loft, which feels defiantly spacious in the small Hayes Theatre.
Ross Graham’s lighting design is equally creative. With subtle alterations in lighting we markedly shift location and mood between scenes, and the lighting’s shadowy affect brings out the edginess and anger at the core of this show. Georgia Hopkins’ costuming is unique with a hint of modern flair – it manages to truly capture the essence of the characters and the show’s 90s origins
The cast’s energy is cohesive and explosive; they burst forth with passion and unquenchable conviction fitting of their dejected characters that are demanding to be heard, and they have the vocal prowess to match. Every ensemble member brings a pointed energy to their different featured roles whether that is parents, support group members or the homeless.
The leads similarly bring distinctive perspectives on these artists, addicts and lovers, and in some cases uncover new meaning in their portrayals. Stephen Madsen as Mark Cohen is the nice guy narrator, who is less detached than traditionally interpreted, and brings out some touching moments of sentimentality during the second act, particularly bringing to light his inevitable impending loneliness and sorrow to new and meaningful depths. Matthew Pearce as Benny brings a real earnestness and likeability to a snide, aloof character. Christopher Scalzo as Angel is gentle and camp, whilst his lover Nana Matapule as Collins is warm at times and at other times is humorous and playful. Casey Donovan’s Joanne is traditional and distant, with an incredible vocal performance that earned lavish applause on opening night and Linden Furnell’s Roger is brooding and edgy.
Laura Bunting’s Maureen is quirky and rebellious, a true depiction of the roots of this show. “Over the Moon” under Rennie’s innovative direction and Bunting’s eccentric performance truly showcases Maureen’s blasé disregard for convention, which encapsulates the mantra ‘viva la vie boheme’. Loren Hunter’s Mimi was another standout performance, offering a completely unique take on the role. Hunter brought a youth and naivety to the drug addict, dancer, coupled with a raw and nervous energy and sensuality that brought out an odd felinity to the role, which was truly captivating.
Andy Dexterity’s inspired choreography often captures the characters’ heart and earnestness to express themselves. The incorporation of AUSLAN sign language was a bold move that at times enhances the performance, yet at others feels stilted and unnatural. The purpose of the sign language, according to the director’s notes, was to express the desperate need of the characters to be heard, and occasionally this is truly felt, particularly in large group numbers such as the opening – sign language does bring a clear physical portrayal of their cry to be understood. At other times, sign feels like an attempt to reach new dramatic heights, whilst it actually detracts from the emotional truth of the actors’ performances, particularly when its used in some of the smaller musical numbers.
With Rent, Rennie proves himself to be a perspicacious new director; he skillfully preserves the show’s core values of connection, rebellion and love of life in the face of death whilst managing to make the show feel unique and fresh.
This production throbs with equal parts pain and love; of artists craving belonging and freedom when threatened with oppression and disease, and their love for each other and for life itself.