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‘Rent’ at Duke

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The other night I went to the opening night of RENT at Duke, the latest production of the Hoof ‘n’ Horn ensemble, the ‘South’s oldest student-run musical theater organization’ (find them on Facebook and Twitter). Here’s the promo video, released before the opening night:

I always have difficulty judging plays by amateur ensembles – at exactly which standard should I hold them? I have seen amazing high-school plays and horrible professional ones (I mentioned both in this post), as well as, of course, amazing professional ones. The Duke group is a mix of people with some stage experience and even Broadway aspirations and their colleagues in other majors for whom acting is fun and they take it seriously, but not in terms of a life career.

But it was reassuring, in the car back home, that my wife and I had some very similar reactions and thoughts – this meant I was not crazy!

There are two ways to take this performance. One is curmudgeonly: “these kids are too young to grok it”. The other is much more charitable: “they subtly and successfully adapted the early 1990s play for their 2010 audience of peers”. Of course, not having interviewed the Director or anyone in the cast, I do not know what their conscious intention was with the play. But I will go with the charitable interpretation here.

What does it mean to ‘adapt’ a play? On one hand, one can take the main story and completely change the time and place, the names of characters, the details. This is what Akira Kurosawa liked to do to Shakespeare when he adapted Hamlet, Macbeth and King Lear to the large screen. The work stands on its own and the knowledge of the original is not necessary for one to understand and enjoy the movie.

Then, one can take an old play and keep it in its original setting – time and place – but adapt it to a modern audience. I suspect that this is what was done to the original Spring Awakening. I have not read the original script, but I assume that it did not contain nudity, or even stylized acts of sex and masturbation. On the other hand, the original probably contained references to geographical places, persons and events that have been lost to memory except for a handful of German historians. After all, the play happens in 19th century Germany. The adaptation also happens in 19th century Germany, but unnecessary details have probably been excised to make the play relevant to today’s audiences. What is important is that the cast has to study the place/period while preparing for their roles, and the audience needs to try to transport itself into the said time and place.

RENT is in itself an adaptation of Puccini’s opera La Boheme. While the original opera is set in 1830s Paris, RENT is set in 1980s New York City. There are many parallels, even some names of main characters remain the same, and the main storyline is certainly the same. When one watches La Boheme on stage, one knows to mentally transport oneself to the 1830s Paris and the cast does its best to convey the atmosphere of that time and place. Yet even La Boheme has had adaptations done over the years – some set in Paris in 1957, some in London, etc.

With RENT, if one has seen it before (I saw it at DPAC a couple of years ago and it was excellent) and knows what it’s about (I have heard the soundtrack at home about a gazillion times), one tries to transport oneself to the NYC of the 1980s (or early 1990s). Many of us remember that time – it is so recent (I was not in the States at the time yet – arrived at JFK in 1991 – but the situation was similar around the world, and we were certainly carefully watching from the sides, with some bewilderment and fear, the soap-opera that was Reagan’s America). We know the atmosphere of those times: Reagan years, marginalization of The Other, alienation, refusal to take AIDS seriously as “gay disease”, etc.

At the time, AIDS was very new. We did not know much about it – what kind of disease it was, how it was transmitted, who could or could not get it, how long could one harbor the virus before getting sick, if there was a way to prolong one’s life or even cure the disease. AIDS at that time was absolutely terrifying! Fear of unknown, coupled with the fear of a debilitating and deadly disease, coupled with horrendous stigma attached to it by the rest of the society.

AIDS is still a horrible and deadly disease. But it is not as horrifying as it once was. We know much more about it today and there are much more effective treatments that can allow the patients to live decent lives carrying the virus for quite a long time before succumbing. Much of the stigma associated with it is gone as well, as most of new cases are now found among the heterosexual men and women of all ages. Thus we can now deal with AIDS in a much less emotional (and political) and much more rational way. It has become a part of the social milieu, and we have built methods to deal with this problem as a society (how good those methods are is debatable, but they exist, thus we can at least feel complacent about AIDS now).

The Duke play, for better or for worse, reflects that shift in attitude. AIDS in their version is not as horrifying as in other versions (e.g., at DPAC). While the script (and the stage set) is the same, the acting – posture, movement, facial expression, tone of voice – minimize the terror of AIDS. They are all so…..damned cheerful all the time! Nobody even really, truly dies in their play. Even the officially dead ones immediately hop up and dance and sing with a smile right after the dying scenes!

But perhaps that is on purpose. Perhaps the new generation is trying – consciously or accidentally – to tell us something.

East Village on Manhattan is just not as dark and dreary as it once was. The artistic avant-garde has, for the most part I hear, moved to Brooklyn. Bohemia, art, drugs, AIDS, freedom, alienation, rebellion, loneliness, desperate search for community – all mixed up (often within the same person) – it’s not in Manhattan (or America, for the most part) any more. So it is not in RENT any more either.

The Duke crew shows us how they can resist being rent apart – in this age of greater tolerance, greater connectivity and community (helped tremendously by the massive spread of cell phones and Internet since the play was written), it is harder to feel lost. One feels it is much easier to find people who can help, find communities to join. Everything is easier when one has friends – and friends are easier to find today than ever in history – just a phone-call (no need to put a coin in the public phone) or a tweet away. Perhaps the experience of 9/11 has changed the attitude of New Yorkers in a similar way.

These kids, just toddlers when the play was first put on stage in 1994, live in a different era – perhaps the grand ambitions are toned down compared to my generation, but the general optimism about the ability to lead a decent, happy life is much greater. Not to be snide about it, but this is Duke students experiencing life in their own social circles, where everything comes easier…

So, one is left wondering – are these kids incapable of grasping how dark and desperate and lonely was life for AIDS-riven artists in 1980s NYC? Or are they trying to tell us to stop preaching to them about the bad old times and to get on with the program?

It’s really hard to tell – I’ve been thinking about it for two days now and am still not sure. How much is it on purpose, and how much is it just naturally flowing from who they are, their age, their socioeconomic stratum, their generational outlook on life?

Is it on purpose that Mimi is blond and Maureen brunette? It is the other way round in pretty much every other version of RENT. Mimi (remember, her full name is Mimi Márquez) is supposed to be Hispanic in a very obvious, stereotypical way. In every play (or movie or novel or comic strip for that matter), most characters need to be stereotypical, to help the audience orient itself. A transformation of the character into something audience does not expect is often the story. Even the voices and the singing styles are reversed. Throughout the play I kept thinking to myself that Ryan Murphy would be a perfect Mimi and Allie DiMona a perfect Maureen. Yet they did it the other way round – why? Is it because of some personal deals behind the scenes, is it some kind of an inter-Duke hierarchy, or is this on purpose, to provide a different vision that should make people like me uneasy, but will make perfect sense to the 99% of their intended audience – the other Duke students? Mimi is supposed to be a dancer at a strip club and Ally does a great job acting like and moving like a dancer at a strip club – something that most Mimis don’t emphasize. Is that also a generational change in sensibilities, a greater ease with sexuality?

The role of Angel, probably still pretty shocking back in 1994, is pretty bland here. One of the key characters in traditional versions, Angel is in the background in this version, not having the energy and the seriousness that I think Angel should have. Is that also on purpose? To show that cross-dressing (and dying of AIDS) is not such a big deal any more?

The ensemble has huge energy whenever they sing together as a chorus. The chemistry they have as a group is palpable. Yet, this chemistry vanishes when they sing duets. Is it because they did not have much time – a few weeks in-between classes (and Blue Devils games) – to rehearse, or was that also on purpose: showcasing the community spirit at the expense of inter-personal relationships, perhaps as a poignant reminder that there are pros and cons to every generation’s mindset: this one, perhaps, being more at ease in groups than one-on-one? Or was it accidental, because they are who they are, acting out their own selves? Or is that the case with every generation at that age: feeling more secure in a group than when dealing with others one-on-one, something that one gradually gains with age and maturity?

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I got free tickets from the producers of this show, and I am aware that this is an amateur college production. I have no inclination to be as critical about each individual’s skills or performance as I would do if I paid hundreds of dollars to watch big theatrical names in a top-flight theater. Some of them are excellent singers (Amber Sembly, Brittany Duck, Aidan Stallworth), others excellent actors (Matt Campbell, Robert Francis), a few are both (notably Ryan Murphy, also Brooke Parker), and a few are really not that great, but so what? They are all having great fun doing this, and it shows, and it was fun to watch. Most of them have no ambition to make theater their profession, so why not have fun while in college.

Alessandra DiMona (Mimi) is interesting – a great presence on stage, and an amazing voice. Yet, listening to her sing, I was thinking of my father (who was a professional singer) and his insistence that Number One trait of a good singer is diction – every syllable and every word has to be clear and understandable to the last elderly foreigner in the back row of the third balcony. It felt to me like she is in the middle of a transition of her singing training, still enjoying the amazing potential and scope of her voice, but still learning how to discipline it. She can certainly belt out a note or two, but the next note should not be barely audible (and if that is due to movement, e.g., dancing, well, that can be trained as well – general fitness training plus voice training), just to pick up again on the next syllable. I feel like she should hire some old Russian lady teacher of the Old School to drill her several hours a day until she cries….for several months, until that amazing voice is under control. She has a great potential so I hope she gets the necessary training to fulfill that potential. If she does that, she can have a career on Broadway – her voice is that powerful and pleasant.

But back to the question of ‘adaptation’. When one adapts a 19th century play for 21st century, the audience is aware of that. But how can one subtly adapt a 1980s play for 2010? The intended audience – the Duke students – may have never seen RENT before, may not be aware that it was set in 1980s, may have no idea how life in the 1980s America used to be. But a couple of old geezers in the audience, like me, are going to be confused as we remember the 1980s, the AIDS scare, the isolation and alienation of the Reagan years, and we know where and when RENT is supposed to occur – is this a case of the new generation missing the point of RENT, or is this a case of adaptation to the worldview of the 2010 set? Even if the shift was unintentional, it certainly made me think – something that should be obvious from this review you are reading right now.

I am also aware that this was the opening night. Even professionals are nervous on the premiere night. It was visible how the ensemble started out tense and relaxed as the night wore off (and they noticed that no huge disasters happened on stage). They are probably getting better and better each night. You should go and see them if you can – they still have a few nights to go.

Comments

  1. #1 Tony P
    April 12, 2010

    That’s ok, this past Friday evening I went to the Rites and Reason Theater at Brown University to see a staged reading of Andre Thompson’s My Penis: An Exhibition. It was part of the Black Lavender Experience 2010. It’s all plays and readings by gay black authors.

    Lets just say it was interesting.

  2. #2 KristinMH
    April 12, 2010

    FWIW, the original Spring Awakening did contain a masturbation scene (a circle jerk in the reform school one of the characters gets sent to), one of the things which made it so controversial in its time.

    /nitpick Nice, sensitive review, Bora.

  3. #3 Brooke
    April 12, 2010

    I think I’d go with “School productions are generally bowdlerized” as the Ockham’s razor, here. They leave out the messy stuff in Shakespeare, too. As an AIDS educator starting in the early 80′s, when there was enormous reason for panic and doom, I found even the most at risk young people pretty cheery. Politically sensitive people (and maybe people overseas) may have been alarmed, but the average college student or gay in the clubs wasn’t. So the change is probably most that this play is being produced by colleges, and not that there’s been a societal sea change of our understanding of AIDS.

    In support of this thesis I’d refer you to current numbers on the use of condoms.
    http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/nsfg/abc_list_c.htm#condomhiv

    I seriously doubt those numbers reflect confidence that HIV treatment options are so rockin’.

  4. #4 Catharine
    April 12, 2010

    FWIW: Not controversial, BANNED.

    Brooke: I think your memory is colored by your experience as an AIDS educator (which, in those days, would have made you a “them.” I bet not a single one of these kids has watched one of their friends die of AIDS. Back in the late 80′s, I saw FOUR pretty close friends die — in NC — (then later, as a nurse, hundreds more). Remember ACT UP? The quilt? We were all terrified of AIDS! And very, very passionate and politically active.

  5. #5 Catharine
    April 12, 2010

    And by the way, the best sex is safe sex. Go to http://aidelsvice.com and pick up a condom case today!

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