With book, music, and lyrics by Jonathan Larson, RENT was loosely based on Puccini’s 1896 opera “La Boheme.” But it also includes many personal experiences drawn from Larson’s life as a struggling, impoverished artist in 1980s New York City’s East Village. Some New York locations even became part of the play – for example, the Life Café was an actual place in the East Village which was closed in 2013. Apparently, the 29-year-old Larson began collaborating on the project in 1989 – a project that resulted in the eventual production of RENT, which opened in 1996 off-Broadway. But Larson never got to appreciate his success. The night before the premiere, Larson died suddenly of aortic dissection, possibly a complication of undiagnosed Marfan Syndrome. In fact, the dramatic story behind RENT was recently documented in the 2021 film, “Tick, Tick…Boom!” Later in 1996, the production moved to Broadway, where it ran for 12 years, making it one of Broadways’ longest-running shows. Clearly, something in RENT resonated with theater-goers, both nationally and internationally.
Set in 1980s Manhattan, RENT tells the story of a group of poor young artists struggling to survive and create in NY’s East Village, a place where the bohemian lifestyle was revered, a life in the days of drug and sexual exploration and experimentation – and just at the cusp of the emergence of HIV/AIDS. Narrated by Mark (Eddie Vona), a talented Jewish writer with dreams of creating a great work, RENT tells the tale of roommates Roger (Carlos Padilla), Collins (Mitchell Johnson), and Benny (Kevin Matsumoto), along with the diverse denizens of their circle, including Angel (Ricky Abilez), Mimi (Ellie Aviles), Maureen (Shanelle Darlene), Joanne (Nicole Ledoux), and all the unnamed, homeless, and lost souls skirting their fringes. This is a society of kids searching for their identities while sampling bits and pieces of whatever is on the menu at the moment. Most of them are into drugs – and quite a few suffer from HIV/AIDS. Some aren’t sure of their sexual identity, while others try on different personas like Halloween costumes. When Mark is thrown into this universe, he knows that he must pull his observations together into one story of longing, loss, and ultimately love, a story which becomes the basis for RENT – a word denoting both a description of a struggle for the basics of life – and an account of the eventual tearing apart of intimate connections.
The Coeurage Ensemble took Larson’s tale and embellished it with their own brand of creativity. The production is in a theater-in-the-round of sorts. The audience sits in the center of the space (marked by white marks on the floor) on chairs which move up and down and roll hither and yon. The play goes on around the enclosed circle, with different scenes placed here and there surrounding the inner circle. When actors move from scene to scene, the audience rolls to better (or worse) vantage points to take in the action.
A word about the Coeurage Ensemble, which is a diverse group of actors representing every race, ethnicity, sexual identity, and diverse difference that Los Angeles holds (which is obviously immense). The net effect is to add a new dimension to the production. After a moment, it appears that these are not actors – but real people telling their own stories. These are the people Larson was telling us about, and the authenticity of the presentation is chilling and also brilliant. After a while, RENT is real; and the barriers between audience and performers evaporate, an eerie but exciting event. Even the shoe-string budget and the lack of brand named cast feeds into what Larson was saying. Director Reena Dutt knows how to take full advantage of this with powerful results. Kudos to Rebecca Graul’s musical direction, so critical in a musical. This is a production worth seeing – one that it is likely will not be repeated in a traditional theatrical setting.
RENT runs through November 19, 2022, with performances at 8 p.m. on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays, at 7 p.m. on Sundays, and one extra performance on Monday, 11/14/22, at 8 p.m. The Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles is located at 1238 West First Street, Los Angeles, CA 90026. Tickets are Pay-What-You-Want. For information and reservations, call 323-576-8193 or go online.