Portland Center Stage’s “Rent,” which runs through July 10, is a well-crafted version of the 1996 Jonathan Larson musical, perfectly revisited for this moment in politics.
The musical focuses on roommates Mark Cohen and Roger Davis who come to the conclusion they should not pay their rent for the past year. The story features many of their friends, lovers and others within their East Village community. Act One comes to a close with a protest performance by the artsy sex pistol Maureen Johnson. However, the second act strikes a more somber note as beloved Angel dies from AIDs and Mimi nearly dies from a drug overdose.
“Rent” is very analogous to the current moment, something this production is well aware of. As labor unions rise and tenets push for rights, the economic truth of the narrative is perfect for 2022. Not only that, but the country is one again dealing with a public health crisis sparked by a virus. Additionally, the country has returned to a moment where queer, especially transgender, people are at the center of public controversy.
Although, it is no surprise that a musical with the lines, “For mommy’s sake kitten, no more Doc Martens” and “Dreaming of a white right Christmas” still feels current.
These parallels are beautifully and subtly woven into PCS’s production. For example, great care was taken to portray Angel, a character who blurs the lines between drag and transness, as well as Mimi who is a Black sex worker. Will Welhelm portrays Angel with an innate femininity that validates the character, and is genderqueer themself. Similarly, Nyla Sostre brings humanity to Mimi through compassionate choices.
Such connections are also made explicit in supplementary materials such as the prologue talk that comes before some showings and materials in the program.
According to PCS Literary Manager Kamilah Bush’s Behind the Curtain article featured in the program, “Rent” changed the theater landscape in many ways.
“”Bringing ‘Rent’ to the stage was several revolutions in one,” Bush wrote. “A rock musical had not been successful since ‘Hair’ in 1967, the cast was intentionally multi-racial and reached across both gender and sexuality spectrums, and in a country whose president would not even utter the word AIDs until thousands had died, this play sought to bring the humanity of those living with the virus into the spotlight.”
PCS’s production aimed to highlight these revolutionary aspects, and succeeded in many ways, as evidenced by a strong audience reception throughout the show. While the rock sound is boundary pushing and fun to listen to, this particular production struggled to balance the loud instruments with vocals, especially at the beginning. At times, this posed a problem as “Rent” is almost entirely sung and the lyrics are critical to the narrative. However, this did not dull the brilliant performances from the cast. In fact, the cast was so strong that ensemble members often stole little moments of the show, such as Charles Grant whose movement quality was alluring and comical, as well as Aléa Lorén with her belting vocals.
While he daring sexuality still may make some audience members a little uncomfortable, it is in the best way possible. Metaphors about lighting a candle may be very euphemized, however many moments are more direct. During the production, Kailey Rhodes, who plays Maureen, takes on the role of an erotic cow, claims “There will always be a woman in rubber flirting with me” and straddles her love interest Joanne on stage. These moments make this performance as joyously sexy as it is funny.
However, one of the most revolutionary aspects of this musical is how it has touched generations of queer individuals, especially children. Director Chip Miller brings this up in his note.
“This story and these songs showed a little kid from Missouri that a whole world of possibility existed – queer love stories, artists as anarchists, chosen family,” Miller wrote. “That it was also the beginning of my understanding of the HIV/AIDs epidemic seems a fitting lesson – all of those magical possibilities live in the specter of death, disease, and a system not made to support those in need.”
Bringing this production to youth was important to the company. Two shows early in the run were specifically for high schoolers. Over 900 local students attended, according to the pre-show prologue.
Another highlight of this run of “Rent” was the set design, which featured many of the same team members from PCS’s “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” from earlier this season. The depth of stage was impressive and the scale only seemed larger with the metal scaffolding on either side. Seeing characters climb the metal work, fold one piece down into a stage and move the entire right side was wowing every time. The only drawback is the wings are more visible with this design, which can be distracting during scene changes or entrances.
Overall, this is a performance you do not want to miss. Artistic Director Marissa Wolf puts it best in her note.
“‘Rent’ offers us a space for communal laughter and dancing in our seats, a space for catharsis as we seek continued healing for ourselves and our community,” Wolf wrote.
Tickets are available at pcs.org starting at $25. Additionally, students get 50% off for seating areas one through three. PCS’s 2022-23 season opens Aug. 20 with “tick, tick…BOOM!”, another play by Larson.