BWW Reviews: RENT Brings La Boheme to the Funk Zone
Areté Productions, the performance wing of SOPA (Santa Barbara School of Performing Arts), brings an impressive production of RENT to the Art Foundry in Santa Barbara's Funk Zone. The production is lively without sacrificing substance, and delivers a committed performance marked by intuitive acting and impressive rock opera-style vocals. Being that the cast is young-some of them are still in high school-there is always the lurking question of how adolescent actors will stay afloat in roles that require a certain amount of depth. This cast maintained the earnestness of their roles: young artists who are doing something between searching for and waiting for the glory of one good song before their story comes to an end-whether by death (the prevalence of HIV/AIDS provides a central conflict of RENT) or by growing up and trading la vie bohème for a traditional lifestyle. The grungy glamour of the hipsters, who suffer with gusto, is weighted with an appropriate amount of angst: they exude the tough, outcast, anarchist vibe of a group of people who, for reasons both philosophical and economical, simply will not pay last year's (or next year's) rent.
SOPA brings a very important element to the arts community in Santa Barbara: high-caliber training and opportunity for exposure for young talent. Standouts in this cast are Julia Kupiec as Mimi, with a voice both powerful and vulnerable, and Matthew Doohan as pouty, tormented Roger, a musician with bouts of perfectly ragged emotional self-destruction. Tad Murroughs is a scruffy, loveable Tom Collins who preserves the mindfulness of an eccentric genius in love with the bohemian lifestyle. Miriam Dance-Leavy's Maureen brought a dominant, grounding presence to the stage with commanding vocals. (And I'd be remiss to forego mentioning Jessica Hambright, (show producer and Sopa's co-artistic director along with Dauri Kennedy), whose cameos as Mrs. Cohen, a politely demanding, yet ever-so-shrill, voice on several neglected voicemails, were comic delight.)
The Art Foundry, a small gallery space with an industrial feel, provided an appropriate set for this musical drama set in Manhattan's Alphabet City, known for being an diverse, bohemian-type neighborhood. However, while it seems fitting to host RENT in the Funk Zone, Santa Barbara's own burgeoning art sector, the limits of visibility in the Art Foundry created some challenges. While the stark atmosphere of the space characterized well the cold concrete feel of winter in the Lower East Side, the lack of raked seating and raised performance spaces made some of the stage action difficult to see. Venues that can double as pop-up theaters are crucial to the growing arts scene in Santa Barbara, but it's imperative to realize the limitations of a space. The production did utilize the aisles, and the raised stage areas that were used created visibility and enlarged the playable space on set, which eased crowding during the more populated scenes.
This issue of visibility should be completely alleviated when Areté revives the production next month at Center Stage Theater in Paseo Nuevo. Once in the larger space, Areté will have the means to more properly exhibit their exciting show. This production handles the energy and themes of RENT with style and eager aplomb.
Directed by Kameron Tarlow
Areté Productions / Sopa (Santa Barbara School of Performing Arts)
May 23rd-24th, 2014
Center Stage Theater, Santa Barbara