Student-organized Shrunken Head Productions filled the Old Little Theatre with the raw sounds of “RENT,” the rock opera that speaks to the grittiness of modern life.
RENT was first written in 1988 by playwright Billy Aronson, though its plot was already about a century old. RENT is actually based on Giacomo Puccini’s opera La Bohème, which chronicles the story of a group of desperate — but beautiful — artists in Paris who contend with the pangs of love and the horrors of disease.
Shrunken Head’s “RENT” opened with Mark (Andrew Erath), who introduced the audience to his modern-day bohemia, fully equipped with malfunctioning electricity, a jobless musician for a roommate, a camcorder and a year’s worth of unpaid rent. Piling bills led the two roommates, musician Roger (Ethan Hartsell) and filmmaker Mark, into the productions title song, “Rent.” The song quickly became an ensemble piece, and though the Little Old Theatre’s less-than-favorable acoustics seemed challenging to the cast, it was easy to hear Hartsell’s surprisingly pretty, tenor voice ring above the chorus.
After some witty repartee and a few more scenes which familiarized the audience with the play’s dirty, New York City background, Mark directed the “camera” (a sort of metaphor for the show’s patrons) to focus on Roger and informed the audience that his roommate suffers from AIDS. This rather jarring announcement became our first clue that despite its rock-pop tunes, “RENT” would carry a much deeper message than a portrait of a few down-and-out artists.
From here, the plot mainly focused on the love affairs of three different couples. The first pair manifested with Joanne, a Harvard-educated activist played by Sarah Cohn, and Maureen, Mark’s flirty ex-girlfriend played by the powerhouse vocalist Shelley Swink. While some of the play dealt with Mark’s frustration with his ex’s newfound lesbianism, more of it concentrated on the relationship between the two dynamic women, often focusing on their chemistry and even comic relief. The second couple was the educated philosopher Collins (Adam Courtin) and Angel (Daniel Russell), the drag queen who saved him from a mugging on one of New York’s many disreputable streets. While Angel did tend to add to the light-hearted aspects of the production, he also became a source for stiffened audience tears with his own battle against AIDS and seemingly never-ending kindness.
Roger and Mimi (Michelle Russell), however, were the plot’s main focus and almost always hit the play’s darker themes. Both suffering from AIDS, the couple demonstrated the horrors of living, and loving, in fear.
The first act of the production was more fun and playful; its final scene even ended on the tune “La Vie Bohème,” which essentially toasts the pathetic-yet-beautiful life of the downtrodden artist. In fact, this tune is something that the actors in Shrunken Head’s “RENT” should be proud of, as the entire cast dealt beautifully with a complex and wildly energetic ensemble piece.
The second act, however, mainly focused on the dark side of “la vie bohème,” discussing issues of homelessness, disease, death and the ever-present bohemian issue of “selling out.”
I’ve witnessed that RENT is an extremely difficult musical to pull off, from high-school productions to professional theater troupes. I was delighted, then, to find myself enjoying a student-produced rendition performed in a tiny theater. With just the right amount of makeshift charm and a few wonderful voices, Shrunken Head Productions created a piece that I suggest all the UCSB musical theater junkies (you know who you are) should see.