The Skylight's RENT In Perspective
Another Look At The 90s Musical from A Local Production
The Skylight Opera Theatre closes out its season in part with a production of Jonathan Larson'’s early '‘90'’s musical RENT. Having seen larger and smaller productions of the show, the Skylight’s staging ends up exactly as expected: more intimate than the touring Broadway production with more professional polish than a recent Greendale Community Theatre production. Here are some highlights:
The space on the Broadway Theatre Center’s main stage is pretty big, but set designer Lisa Schlenker and Choreographers Donna Drake and Rhonda Miller have less space to work with here than one might hope for. As a result, the East Village for this particular production feels a bit cramped. Oddly, it kind of feels more like New York than any other production I’'ve seen. The space is used to its absolute limit. There isn'’t much free space. Those lonely, solitary moments of the show feel amplified quite a bit due to the lack of distance between performer and audience. The connection with the actors is much more natural than in physically bigger productions, as movements aren'’t exaggerated and human emotion is delivered through realistic physical movements. The actors are allowed an opportunity for subtlety and the cast makes use of it quite well. The sound was a little off on Saturday night, as Rick (Mark Cohen) Pendzich’'s amplification pumped out his breathing a bit louder than necessary. This had the result of making the show feel oddly like it was going on in Cohen'’s lungs, but this was actually a pretty minor detail. Everything else came together quite well on the technical end of the show Saturday night.
What You Own
Rick Pendzich'’s unique affability onstage gives the production a really distinct voice. Pendzich'’s personality feeds through the character of aspiring filmmaker Mark Cohen in a really charming way. The character’'s darker, more existentially troubled artistic side below the surface for most of the production. This makes for a refreshingly dramatic angle shift when the character does get frustrated and angry. Original cast member Anthony Rapp'’s Cohen seems less dynamic to me. This could have a lot to do with the fact that he’d been playing the character for so long by the time I’'d seen him in the role this past year, but Pendzich'’s performance feels a lot less inert and introspective. Pendzich i’s refreshingly engaging as Cohen.
One Song Glory
Given the opportunity to play the inner turmoil of Davis on an intimate stage means having the opportunity to play the character in subtle shades. Revolush front man Tommy Hahn takes full advantage of this intimacy. He'’s pensive. This particular Davis carries an emotional fatigue that suits the character well. He's restless, angry and HIV positive and Hahn plays all of that with an admirable lack of exaggeration. It’s remarkably organic and it doesn’t hurt that he looks amazingly comfortable with a guitar. The dynamic between Hahn and Pendzich anchors the musical quite nicely.
New York-based Lili Thomas plays troubled druggie Mimi who ends up in a tumultuous relationship with Davis. She'’s compelling in the romantic end of the play and has really good poise and musicality, but I didn'’t feel as much of the character’s train wreck vulnerability. Of the four actresses I’'ve seen in the role, Stephanie Staszak’'s has been the best. Staszak (who was really close to being as old as Mimi) had the wild, vulnerable end of the character covered, making the ending of the Greendale Community Theatre’'s production that much more emotionally engaging than any professional production I’'ve seen.
Walking in to a production of RENT, I now find myself looking at the other people in the audience and wondering if I’ll be comfortable enough to moo with them. The musical really asks a great deal of the woman playing bisexual performance art diva Maureen. The character enters the stage on a motorcycle. She has to be really intense with no introduction or warm-up. She has to be "on" the moment she hits the stage. She needs to have an intense personality and the performance she needs to give in Over The Moon needs to be bizarre, abstract and intense. And though I’'ve never seen anyone in the role as bizarre and intense as actual obscure performance art divas in the ‘'90’'s, Kate Margaret does a really good job with the role. She'’s better on the emotional end of the character than she is on the character’'s more philosophical side. The artistic end of the character isn'’t as prominent as her emotional side, so it’'s not as big a deal. And while she didn'’t really take the audience to another planet with Over The Moon, she has one hell of a voice and uses it to impressively transcendental effect in the song.
If memory serves, every other production I’ve seen of the musical has the show coming back from intermission with Seasons of Love performed by a cast under a series of direct lamplights. To me, this always looked like they were under heat lamps at a fast food restaurant. It always detracts a little bit from the song to have everyone lined-up like that. It’s kind of odd staging. The Skylight staging of the song has a far more interesting texture for the song. Light and shadow solemnly cloak the cast assembled in a visually interesting formation.
Occasionally bright performances shine out from the chorus. It'’s not a really prominent role, but the homeless woman being accosted by the police who is subsequently saved by Cohen is kind of an iconic one. Ericka Wade does a really brilliant job delivering the intensity of the moment. Prior to this, I don’t think I'’d ever seen that scene performed with the right kind of gravity. As expected, there are some really fun moments with Allison Mary Forbes, most notably in some of the voice mail segments. There'’s really quite a bit of personality coming out of the edges of the East Village here and with a performance space this intimate, one can easily get lost in all of the action moving around in the periphery. Individual details occasionally shine out from edges of the chorus in a way that simply can'’t happen in a bigger production.
The Skylight Opera Theatre'’s production of RENT runs through June 20th.