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Rent’ rocks the Morris Performing Arts Center

Laura Fox | Monday, April 24, 2006

The performances of “Rent” at South Bend’s Morris Performing Arts Center – which ran for three nights this past week – provided audiences with a unique personal encounter with a famous Broadway production.

Started as a script for a theatre workshop, the evolution of “Rent” into a renowned musical involved a seven-year struggle with writing and rewriting for first-time playwright Jonathan Larson. Larson, however, was never able to see his masterpiece performed. After receiving congratulations concerning his anticipated success, Larson died of heart complications on the eve of the show’s opening. Grounding the musical in the celebration of life and the permeability of death, the spirit and tenacity of Larson’s legacy has infused following performances with true emotion.

In the year following Larson’s death, “Rent” premiered to commercial and critical success. The musical received a total of 17 awards in 1996, including a number of Tony Awards and a Pulitzer Prize.

The minimalist props the musical employs reflect the initial budget constraints that Larson faced while writing “Rent.” Three “Frankenstein” tables are usually used for multiple purposes, and a simply crafted metal spire may signify either a Christmas tree or a church steeple depending on the scene.

This sparse, industrial set contrasted sharply against the ornate beauty of the Morris Performing Arts Center. Golden cornices and crown molding only further highlighted the bleak surroundings inhabited by Larson’s vivacious characters.

The cast’s performances offered an infectious spirit, which involved audiences in the closely intertwined elements of levity and tragedy within the show. Focused on the lives of struggling artists in New York City, “Rent” functions as a musical and a social commentary. Once asked to describe his work in one sentence, Larson concluded, “‘Rent’ is about a community celebrating life, in the face of death and AIDS, at the turn of the century.”

The community Larson adeptly created consists of a number of complex relationships formed out of the universal human search for love, identity and friendship. The narrator and central character, Mark is the spoke and impetus around which most of the relationships in the play revolve. He binds them together into a circular, inter-relational unit.

Mark is the former boyfriend of the spunky and irrepressible Maureen, now a lesbian with the intelligent Joanne. He lives with Roger, an aspiring musician who meets and falls in love with Mark’s beautiful and self-possessed neighbor Mimi. Mark befriends both Collins and Angel, who later become lovers.

Many of the relationships within “Rent” have their problems – each pairing endures the hardships of AIDS, death, and jealousy but they do not do so individually. Instead, the beauty of their interactions allows them to share and shed their grief in an ultimate avowal of human dignity and strength.

The audience at the Morris was captivated and included in this sensation through various scenes. The scene in which Maureen protests the attempted eviction of a homeless population from a vacant lot by the group’s former friend Benny was a particularly good example of this effect.

As a performance artist, Maureen uses her art to discuss the unnatural venture Benny is attempting to undertake and calls for universal action through a communal “leap of faith.” Maureen further involves the audience as she calls them to “jump over the moon,” a metaphor for overcoming the negative influence of commercialism upon their neighborhood, through their collective mooing.

Notre Dame students were offered a unique opportunity to see the show for greatly reduced prices through the Student Union Board (SUB). Students were only charged $10 for tickets originally priced at $42. The decision of SUB to purchase such a large number of tickets and to offer them for such a low price was a welcome one for Katie Helm, the organizer of the outing.

“It’s great that SUB can get students involved in the South Bend community,” Helm said.

According to the testimonies of many of the attendees, students loved this opportunity to reach beyond the borders of campus and foray into the cultural life of South Bend. Jeniffer Velez, a proclaimed lover of the popular movie version of “Rent,” thought of trekking to Chicago with some of her friends to catch one of its performances there, but was dissuaded by the high costs and distance.

“Having it play in South Bend was really convenient,” Velez said. “It was awesome that SUB provided the students with tickets and transportation, especially since they gave us such a big discount.”

The musical invoked a common enthusiasm among those who attended. Velez recounts her favorite memory of the show as “exiting the parking lot with the car in front of us blaring ‘Seasons of Love.'”

Orllana Gutierrez, also a big fan of the movie, was particularly pleased by the live performance of the musical as it offered her “extra insight into the emotions and experiences of the characters, and the additional scenes, excluded from the movie version, especially drew my interest.”

The staged production of “Rent” included various scenes that the movie excluded, further cementing the sense of community which Larson created. One in particular, the singing of “Christmas Bells” by the homeless street vendors and many of the main characters of the cast elucidated both the tumultuous nature of their surrounding community and the love encompassed within their shared vivacious relationships.

The local production of “Rent,” a major musical, proved to be an exciting and enjoyable experience for many Notre Dame students.