RENT Sheds Light On Those Intimidated, Ignorant About HIV/AIDS

‘Rent’ runs until June 2 at Carlos P. Romulo Auditorium, RCBC Plaza, Makati City.

By: Jun. 02, 2024
RENT Sheds Light On Those Intimidated, Ignorant About HIV/AIDS
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Manila, Philippines--Rent, the late Jonathan Larson's masterpiece, was a cultural sensation in 1996, winning the Tony Award for Best Musical and a Pulitzer for Drama. But does it still resonate with today’s younger audiences?

9 Works Theatrical's latest production of Larson's Rent, widely speculated to be an “unfinished work,” centers on its characters who were frustrated over the first wave of the aftermath of the AIDS crisis in the ‘80s. Rent, loosely based on Giacomo Puccini's La Boheme, follows a year in the life of a group of young artists and musicians struggling to survive in New York's Lower East Side at the time.

To some pundits, the musical could have reached its prime and is quickly becoming outdated; the lukewarm reception to its 2005 film adaptation was a case in point.

This latest production takes pride in its stellar cast, [mostly] theater newbies, to breathe life into the iconic roles that inspired an older audience—the “‘90s kids,” the musical's original captive market. In this 2024 edition, Roger Davis is Anthony Rosaldo, while Mimi Marquez is alternately played by Molly Langley and Thea Astley. Reb Atadero and Ian Pangilinan play Mark Cohen (Pangilinan is also Roger Davis-cover). Justine Peña and Jasmine Fitzgerald play Maureen Johnson. Fay Castro and Mica Fajardo take turns as Joanne Jefferson. Garrett Bolden plays Tom Collins; Lance Relando and Adrian Lindayag play Angel; Markki Stroem plays Benny Coffin, and Tom Collins at certain performances. Guji Lorenzana is Mr. Jefferson and Benny Coffin at certain performances.

RENT Sheds Light On Those Intimidated, Ignorant About HIV/AIDS Striking Visuals

Scenographer Mio Infante masterfully establishes and paints vivid scenes, creating a visual feast for the audience to immerse themselves and experience the journeys of the story’s struggling Bohemian artists, as captured through the up-and-coming filmmaker Cohen’s lens.

A nod to Paul Clay’s original set design, the three-tiered scaffolding installed onstage is a permanent fixture to mirror the residents’ living conditions. Despite the main set’s immobile structure, each box-type section has attached PVC-based curtains on its top railings. These curtains serve as projection walls, where the Manhattan cityscape at nighttime and other images are simulated. When slid off, every cramped space reveals what happens behind the curtains, vividly exposing each character’s vulnerabilities.

Every set piece on stage adds texture to the general visual’s mise en scène, aiding the storytelling to move forward or extending the audience's perspective.

With Infante's genius, the show's video and projection designer, Joee Mejias, introduces a bevy of pop-up imagery that further enriches the narrative. In the “Contact” scene (Angel's convulsion), phallic illustrations similar to Keith Haring's are flashed across the stage. The inclusion of such art is somehow an ode to the artists who capitalized their expressions during that era.

Subtle images are carefully placed, like the rainbow-colored chairs in the “La Vie Bohème” scene. Shakira Villa Symes, the lighting designer, individually lights them--creating such a dramatic effect.

Infante doesn’t stop from such surprises. If a spectator's imagination is as wild as the scenographer's, they will experience winter during this summer run of Rent. For a show like this, where iconic costumes are noticeable, like Angel’s Santa coat and Roger’s rock star black jacket, the wardrobe team gathers the needed pieces, and suddenly, the audience gets transported to a 4D winter simulation.

Sterling Performances

As Roger, a more mature performer Rosaldo shines. His singing matches the intensity and sensitivity of his two leading ladies, Langley and Astley. However, between the two Mimis, the latter is much closer to the character I pictured. 

The two Marks, Atadero and Pangilinan, have pluses, but the younger alternate provided a fresher take and reminded me of now Hong Kong-based actor Fred Lo, who previously played the role. There's no doubt about Atadero’s superb acting and singing skills, but perhaps Pangilinan’s interpretation of a struggling Jewish documentary filmmaker and the show's narrator moved me more. It's evident in Pangilinan’s aura onstage.

RENT Sheds Light On Those Intimidated, Ignorant About HIV/AIDS

Peña and Fitzgerald as Maureen essay the role in different approaches. However, the former naturally moves as an outrageous bisexual performance artist. Castro and Fajardo as Joanne--surprisingly, the latter noticeably channels the Ivy League-educated public interest lawyer more effectively. And her chemistry with Pangilinan in their duet, “Tango Maureen,” is a hit.

Angel is portrayed by two equally talented and distinctly astounding actors. Reblando is the “showgirl type” drag queen percussionist. Lindayag, on the other hand, organically embodies the heart of Larson's material, and he doesn’t have to put much effort into imbibing the struggles of an HIV patient. He could easily win the theatergoer's sympathy with his real-life story reflective of the character's magnetic individual who lives life in the moment.

Bolden draws the theatergoers in awe when he sings his parts, especially the one with “I'll Cover You.” Singing that song, he leaves the crowd in a solemn state.

Stroem convincingly presents an enigma in his character. But he remains humanly relatable. For some, Benny is simply someone compelled to drop his dreams to get out of the rut but has chosen to be compassionate [still] toward others despite being misunderstood.

RENT Sheds Light On Those Intimidated, Ignorant About HIV/AIDS

Sublime Direction

After his resounding success over another Larson's piece, Tick, Tick... BOOM!, Robbie Guevara is at it again. Though Rent as a material may not be as polished as the autobiographical musical, his overall vision for the show weaves a more colorful and meaningful experience for old and new audiences.

His idea of carrying over the “community” in the life support group is his attempt to highlight and capitalize on the song “Seasons of Love.” It's a fantastic decision—a sublime direction to further the musical's message. And even the incorporation of Mr. Scottie, as Alex the Darling, the dog in the story, is not only cutesy. It helps establish a connection between the dog and Angel.

Rent’s legacy is the musical's best and most enduring numbers “La Vie Boheme,” “Take Me or Leave Me,” and “Seasons of Love.” Mind you, the songs aren't rock (in nature) but are easily synonymous with Larson's intention of blending contemporary pop with musical theater.

Rent is like a lessee's appointed time--ticking and running like a borrowed time on earth. Larson's two musicals, Rent and Tick, Tick... BOOM!, suggest almost the same premise: to forget and live each day without regret.

Rent has stood the test of time. It still serves as a beacon to shed light on those who remain apathetic, scared, and ignorant about HIV/AIDS.

Photos: 9 Works Theatrical




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