In a follow-up to last year’s critically acclaimed staging of “Hairspray,” Ram’s Head Theatrical Society’s production of “Rent” will — after much anticipation — unleash the force of some of the most talented artists and vocalists here at Stanford. A difficult piece for any group to put on, “Rent” is renowned for its discussion of some of the most “othered” experiences in both the world of musical theater and in the privileged domain of Stanford students. Set in New York’s East Village at the height of the AIDS epidemic, the story explores dark themes foreign to most students — from homelessness to poverty to queer life to drug addiction — while celebrating the resilience of the human spirit and reminding audiences to live for the moment.
The play is told from the perspective of an aspiring documentary filmmaker named Mark, who uses his charmingly ‘90s camera to follow the lives of his friends over the course of a year. Throughout the show, we receive insight into 525,600 minutes in the shoes of some of America’s most marginalized: Roger, a songwriter who’s just lost his girlfriend to AIDS; Mimi, a stripper struggling to overcome addiction; Collins and his partner Angel, a drag queen also battling AIDS; as well as Mark’s ex-girlfriend Maureen and her fiancée Joanne.
In a much-welcomed twist on the original, Mark is played by a non-white actor: the endearing Preston Lim ‘17, whose lighthearted approach to the role carries us through the tough worlds of our protagonists. His roommate Roger, played by a brooding Peter Litzow ‘18, enthralls with his husky voice, introducing us to a style of music drastically different from much of what has graced the mainstage in the past few years.
In the weeks leading up to opening night, much attention has been given to the ingenuity of the show’s technical features — particularly to the use of automated platforms which, equipped with high-powered motors, are able to travel, move and rotate as needed. The result is one of great intimacy, allowing the set to expand and contract in ways that provide the audience with the most access to the action. The vast metal scaffolding of the platforms is adorned — if one can use such a word here — with indicators of the play’s urban setting: battered street signs, eviction notices, posters advertising local performances and, of course, a massive backdrop of the city’s skyline. The stairways are draped with twinkling Christmas lights, and a modest band (led by the prolific Makulumy Alexander-Hills ‘16) is placed on platforms at each end of the stage.
Though the production’s directorial vision does not make a great deal of effort to deviate from the Broadway original, Jace Casey’s ’17 choreographic work adds a much-needed touch of creativity to the timeless musical. The song “Over the Moon” (written in protest of the infamous East Village evictions) is transformed by the brilliant addition of three interpretive backup dancers, bringing a taste for humor and performance art inseparable from the Village’s history. Also striking is Casey’s take on “Santa Fe” and “Contact” — the former using simple, elegant movement to evoke the bustle of a New York City subway and the latter a steamy exploration of sexuality during the AIDS crisis, with performative choreography laced with the kind of nuance necessary for such heavy subject matter.
In terms of talent, there are almost too many highlights to fit into a single review. Along with her astounding acting and phenomenal stage presence, Justine DeSilva’s ‘16 show-stopping performance as Maureen is so captivating I could scarcely recall Idina Menzel’s face by the time the curtain fell. Clarissa Carter’s ‘19 singing, particularly during the smash hit “Take Me or Leave Me,” is nothing short of breathtaking — and Andrew Savage ‘19, playing the role of Angel, brings enough energy to fill several auditoriums.
Also noteworthy is the work of the ensemble, who, under the direction of Elizabeth Knarr ‘16, is faced with the challenge of representing New York’s bohème, a rag-tag group of displaced homeless people, racist police officers and various other characters. During the famous number “Seasons of Love,” Abigail Flowers ‘17 is especially remarkable, tackling one of the most difficult solos of the show with grace and soul.
But perhaps most moving is Chris Sackes’ ‘16 heart-wrenching performance at his lover’s funeral, after Angel finally loses his battle with AIDS. In a moment of tender vulnerability, he clutches Angel’s drumsticks and sings a reprise of “I’ll Cover You” — a number which, aided by the sincerity of Sackes’ body language and his beautifully silken voice (with a background in Talisman), no amount of applause could do justice. With easily the most believable chemistry in the show, Angel and Collins’ romance is one which makes even the heart of a cynic tremble, and by the end of the number, the audience was producing enough tears to fill every fountain on campus.
Of course, no rendition of “Rent” emerges without its fair share of problems — and while I applaud Ram’s Head for taking on such an emotional, real and thought-provoking piece, there are certainly moments where it feels as though the show could have done with a bit more patience, nuance and — in a word — delicacy. In a genre of theater so devoted to entertainment and spectacle, it can be extremely challenging to do justice to the stories of people who will never see a penny of the profits made off of these performances.
And, as someone who grew up in a community where hard drugs were commonplace, there is something admittedly uncomfortable about watching Stanford students fumble with needles and rubber tubing onstage. Particularly problematic is the character of Mimi, who — though carried by the spectacular dancing of former Dollie Shelby Mynhier ‘17 — seems to glamorize the realities of both sex work and addiction in a way that undermines many of the aims of Larson’s work.
Needless to say, ‘Rent’ is laced with thematic elements requiring a vastly different kind of attention than that afforded by mere technical expertise. Yet, despite these shortcomings, “Rent” makes a point of centering stories which are rarely given consideration by Stanford’s theater community — and there is something immensely refreshing about seeing such a powerful shift away from the more synthetic aspects of the Broadway stage.
Ultimately, “Rent” is bold, brazen and beautifully executed, composed of one of the best ensembles in Stanford’s theater community. It represents a very real possibility for change in the types of narratives honored here on campus and provides us with a glimpse — however brief — of many of the artists who have paved the way for this kind of work.
Note: Abigail Flowers ’17 is the Theater Desk Editor for The Daily.
Contact Madelaine Bixler at mbixler ‘at’ stanford.edu.