By Christopher Heide
Ever since its Broadway debut, RENT has mesmerized audiences with its vivid and empathetic depiction of the bohemian lifestyle. With graphic imagery of drug use, sexuality and violence, RENT has continuously managed to highlight issues that are currently still rampant throughout our society. While the iconic rock opera has become increasingly well-know, especially after its feature film debut in 2007, the current production by Second Story Repertory of Redmond manages to breathe renewed sense of individuality and naivete into its interpretation of a classic. Second Stroy Repertory injects a visceral urgency into an already youthful, resonant tale.
In regards to the decision to produce another iteration of Rent, director Jeff Orton passionately defends this choice. He states:
"There is a lot to be said about RENT. It's amazing what one show can do, and RENT is a perfect example of the raw love or hate that people can have for something specific like a rock opera. Not only is the show energized by a powerful 90's rock score, not only does it deal with 'questionable' material that can be categorized as cutting edge, risky, and maybe for some of us, relatable, but really, it's what lies outside of the show that is truly beautiful. Those primal feelings we have about love, death, and ecstasy are brought out in Jonathan Larson's words and melodies, and we can't help but get into it, to feel it, to re-live or live vicariously through the way it is to be a starving artist. We fantasize that the people around us will love and fight, and die for us; we believe that's all we need. We believe those people will be here forever, when really, they may not be. We tell ourselves that nothing can take our youth away. All of these thoughts and feelings are born out of this show. It's what makes it so powerful for the people who love it."
This particular production masterfully accomplishes that very task. The intimate, yet technologically infused setting of the Second Story Repertory theater, in combination with the contemporary choreography, creates a very uncomfortable, authentic world for its audiences. Artistic depictions of drug use and physical violence have been poetically infused into the show, ever rooting the emotional center of RENT in today's frantic, fractured society.
In addition to this visual splendor, the casting choices for the principle characters are nearly perfect. In particular, Andrew Murray as Mark and Joshua Downs as Collins seem to have been inspired selections. However, a minor mistake was made in the selection of soloists RENT's most iconic song, Seasons of Love. Rather than allowing the leads to tackle the vocally dynamic challenges of this beloved song, two memebers of the ensemble seemed to have been randomly selected to master the nearly impossible solos. As a result, the emotional core of show had a distincly off-putting effect that distracted from the rest of the spot on performances. Notably, this was a minor flaw amongst a plethora of successes.
Chosen Magazine also had the opportunity to speak with Andrew Murray (Mark) regarding his personal feelings of this iconic production:
Chosen: What personally motivated you to try out for the role of Mark? Did you feel a personal connection to the character?
Murray: Mark has bee a 'dream role' of mine for a while now. Not only was I excited by the fact that it is vocally challenging (and I have been singing all his songs in the shower for YEARS), but I'm drawn to characters that act as a narrator. One of my favorite things about being on stage is telling a story, and being able to share it with a completely different group of people in the audience every night. Mark observes the actions of his friends just as the audience members watch them, and it is my job to make sure that they are engaged and following me the whole time. I find that task really exciting.
Chosen: What is a common misconception most people have about RENT?
Murray: That it is all about AIDS! You've seen Team America, you know how people conceive this show in their heads, haha! Yes, this show takes place in a time when the virus was extremely prevalent and frightening, specifically in the artist community. However this is a show about relationships, love, fighting for what you believe and not giving into the fears of speculation. No day but today.
Chosen: The topic of sexuality plays a role in both hetero and homo relationships on stage. How do you feel this impacts the recent changes in marriage equality or the gay community?
Murray: RENT was a ground breaking work in the musical theatre cannon for numerous reasons when it premiered, but it has definitely grown to be an important staple specifically in the gay community. I feel like many of us as gay men identify with and epitomize the bohemian lifestyle to which a majority of the show's characters prescribe. More importantly, the two characters who are the real 'heart' of the show and who the audience walks away caring the most about (Angel and Collins), happen to be gay. Here are two men onstage, utterly in love with one another, afflicted with AIDS and we as patrons (whether gay, straight, or other) feel most connected to their relationship and root for them the whole time. It is extremely comforting and reassuring to see gay characters humanized onstage in this way.
Chosen: How do you feel this show differs from other productions of RENT?
Murray: This show is extremely intimate in terms of the space, which I believe is different than how many people have seen it before on tour and in other, larger houses in town. Additionally, there are many different ways in which these characters may be presented depending on the actor playing the role. Whether you've seen the show once or ten times over, I think it is exciting and important to come see how different casts breathe life in to and flesh out the nuances of these individuals.
Chosen: What is something you would like people to know about RENT, yourself or the performing arts community?
Murray: I think it is important for people to know that yes, we really are having as much fun as it looks up on stage. And we're able to memorize all those lines and lyrics because it's our job. I don't understand why people still get so shocked/impressed by that!
Chosen: Using an insider's perspective, how would you review the show?
Murray: I am very proud of the work that the entire cast and production team has done in this show. As to whether it will go down in history as one of the finer productions of RENT, that is left up to the individual watching. It may end up being one of the best shows they've ever seen, while others might find our interpretation awful. Regardless, it is an important piece of musical history that needs to be told and I am humbled by the fact that I get to be involved.
Overall, Second Story Rep's production of RENT is easily one of the best seen in recent years. It runs through May 5th at Second Story Repertory.