BWW Review: This RENT is Spent, and Passion is Not Enough to Pay the Piper at the Artscape Arena
If RENT were about the life experiences of a young, African-American, lesbian lawyer, the current revival of Jonathan Larson's 1997 rock opera at the Artscape Arena might be worth its hefty ticket price of R295 and the production might be as relevant as it claims to be. As it is, Namisa Mdlalose's truly wonderful performance as Joanne is but a supporting story to a central narrative about the anguish of two straight white men, one of whom cries white tears magical enough to bring back from the dead his Latinx girlfriend - even if this undermines the show's 'no day but today' credo in the process. Why live for the moment when, as it turns out, 'this moment's not the last'?
Time has, perhaps, not been kind to certain elements of RENT, a musical which I have both loved and disdained, by which I have been moved and left cold, and which I have left behind, returned to and loved it all over again. Larson's phenomenal music and many of the sentiments expressed in his lyrics are seductive; sheer passion overrides the problems that surface in the structuring of the narrative he has crafted from LA BOHEME. But once the realisation dawns that RENT posits - to quote Sarah Schulman - 'that straight people are the heroic centre of the AIDS crisis", one's view of the show can nevermore be unambiguous. When it comes to (gender) politics and plotting, RENT is very much the poor man's ANGELS IN AMERICA.
Almost three hours before the climactic moment described above, RENT introduces its audience to Roger and Mark, who have in common a loft apartment and equally debilitating crises that prevent them from embodying the bohemian ideals they once aimed to embrace. Roger's girlfriend, April, committed suicide when she found out they were both HIV-positive, leaving Roger trapped in a spiral of doubt that he will never find his true voice as an artist before he dies. Mark, who also narrates RENT, is a somewhat callow man-child who is struggling to elevate his filmmaking beyond what he calls his "old shit".
Their crew includes Mark's ex-girlfriend, Maureen, who introduces her current girlfriend, Joanne, to the group; similarly, their old friend, Collins, introduces Angel to their clan on the Christmas Eve that proves to be a fateful night for them all. There is also Benny, who has abandoned the group's ideals to pursue a life of corporate schmoozing, and Mimi, a club dancer who arrives one night on Roger's doorstep and ends up winning his heart.
Despite all the diversity introduced through these characters, the action of the play hinges exclusively on the question of whether Roger and Mark can find the sense of connection that all the others seem to have found in one way or another. Larson places the narratives of people of colour and the LGBTI community in service of the revelations of this pair of most socially, economically and politically privileged protagonists. Even when the conflicts arise for, say, Joanne and Maureen or when tragedy strikes at the very soul of this group, it is only as a counterpoint to Roger and Mark's experiences. Roger and Mimi might think that they will die without each other, but Angel dies with Collins right there - and "I'll Cover You" is an exponentially greater love song than "Your Eyes" if songs are to be considered grounds for salvation.
One of the few positive points of this production of RENT is how it stands its ground when it comes to casting the roles with a considered integrity when it comes to race. There is no whitewashing to be seen on the Artscape Arena stage, and the diverse characters are brought to life by a suitably diverse company of actors. More's the pity, then, that they are largely not up to the task of performing the material. Mdlalose's Joanne aside, the performers simply cannot meet the acting, singing and staging requirements of this piece. Anzio September comes closest in his portrayal of Angel, and Nadine Suliaman and Dean de Klerk, who sing well as Mimi and Mark, would not be far behind with better direction and choreography. The generally mediocre acting in this production, however, prompts the question of how much responsibility lies at the doors of this country's tertiary musical theatre institutions, as many of the cast members are recent graduates with little experience in the theatre industry.
Creatively, this production of RENT owes a great deal to the look and style of the original Broadway production, although Byron Bure's direction and Shona Brabant's choreography are but faint echoes of taut, precise staging created by Michael Greif and Marlies Yearby two decades ago. Greif's direction, in particular, managed to mask or negotiate some of the ideological and structural inconsistencies in the material itself, which Bure's direction fails to address. The massive set is impressive, but its upper levels are underutilised, often making for awkward visual compositions on the small stage.
Technically, RENT is a complete and utter disaster. The sound design is most problematic, with no balance existing between the vocals and music, even when the microphones are working - and they cut out frequently. With entire sequences sometimes lost due to single or multiple microphones going down, Jaco Griesel's musical direction is completely lost. Barely a single sung note or lyric was audible in the second act's "Happy New Year", for instance, and the sound design frequently leaves the cast to fend for themselves in solos and duets.
There is also no sense of plotting sound through the space, leaving the audience disoriented as the characters' voices emerge out of nowhere. Were the lighting designed to support the storytelling as it shifts through multiple voices and settings, things might yet be salvaged to some extent. But Faheem Bardien works either exclusively either for visibility or mood with no sense of shaping the narrative or rhythm of the production.
When RENT was first performed in Cape Town, it received mixed notices from the press and played to small houses, struggling to fill the Artscape Theatre. The night I attended this vastly inferior production, it was almost completely sold out. The passion of these young creatives is immense and clearly resonates with the communities from which they come. But I wish this production team had sought out mentorship to help them achieve their vision, and I wish that they had had the courage to re-envision RENT rather than rehash the approach of a production that was made for the audiences of its time. Any revival should address the context into which it is born and, more often than not, passion alone is not enough to carry someone who has bitten off more than they can chew. It is far too easy for passion to succumb to hubris.
RENT plays the Artscape Arena at 19:30 nightly until 25 February, with a matinee at 15:00 on Saturday. Bookings are through Computicket.