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Another Portland Blog

Friday, June 26, 2009

 

Rent control

Somewhere in the first act of Rent a character named Maureen resorts to performance art to protest the eviction of her friends from their East Village home. She's overly-earnest, unintentionally hilarious and desperate for approval, so much so that the character actually kicks down the fourth-wall of the Broadway musical to encourage the audience to join in.

Sure enough, hundreds of people in the crowd at the Keller on Tuesday night joined in, defiantly "moo-ing" along with Maureen. If you've been looking for a metaphor for Rent and its 15-year theatrical legacy, I can't think of a better one.




I get it, honestly, I do. Rent was daring when it debuted on Broadway in the mid-90s. It force-fed topics like AIDS, gentrification, class warfare, drug abuse, gay rights, "selling-out" and survivor's guilt down the throats of an audience more accustomed to watching people in cat costumes prance around. Its themes aside, this thing just isn't very good.

You know you're in for trouble when a night at the theater involves having to read a flow-chart about the characters in the program. There's so much going on at any one moment during Rent that it's almost impossible to keep up with all the love-triangles, art projects, self-destruction and choreographed dance moves on display. The plot is simple enough. A group of artists living rent free in New York find themselves at odds with a former friend who is about to sell their building out from under them. Still, twenty minutes in, amidst the chaos and all the performers singing over one another I stopped caring about who was lighting who's "candle," how many minutes there are in a year and who was on the brink of dying that my brain turned off.




The second half is a mad-dash to the curtain call, frantically blasting through a year in the lives of its characters. Rent promptly drowns itself in exposition before finally collapsing at the two hour mark. It ends with an anti-climatic whimper when it should have resorted to a bang in order to drive its message of tolerance and carpe-diem home to all of the gray-hairs who have sat through the musical over the years. You would think that a play based on an opera would explode into tragedy-overload at the conclusion. Nope, not here.

Still, for all of the high-school drama kids in the Keller that night and for all of the people that stood outside waiting for $20 rush tickets, Rent is a supreme cultural milestone. While I sat in the audience trying to not to think of the cold-blooded parody in Team America, a teenage girl next to me was dancing in her seat and singing along to the lyrics. Eh, could have been worse. At least she wasn't sitting at home obsessing over Twilight.

Rent closed on Broadway last year. I wonder if it's destined to become another West Side Story that will continue to be performed in high schools and theaters around the world for years to come or if it's destined to sputter out and become a forgotten '90s artifact. Based on the crowd's response, I don't think the musical is going anywhere anytime soon.

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