robertisenberg

Making “Rent”: 2

In Uncategorized on November 8, 2010 at 12:01 am

A patron photographs a Salvador Dalí painting, the MET, New York.

Rent’s characters are less appealing today. I was stunned, in 2005, when Chris Columbus directed his bizarre film version. What place did Rent have in the Bush Years? The United States was fighting two wars and openly condoned torture. The gay rights movement had reached a cultural plateau. The East Village had traded broke bohemians for well-heeled hipsters, and the stock market was flying a kamikaze mission. So who cared about a bunch of dropout artists? In the world of Glenn Beck and Pat Robertson, what are HIV and homelessness but godly punishments? Is there one shred of Rent that your average Tea Partier would not abhor?

Indeed, some sentiments are hard to swallow, even by lefty Vermonters who once loved the show. In the song “What You Own,” Mark sings lines like “leave your conscience at the tone.” Such gripers can’t survive in the 21st Century. Roger, the sulky musician, is hardly a character at all – he’s just a sad dude with a guitar. Rock-stars and filmmakers are no longer reliable for sturdy liberal sentiments, and most of Rent’s themes can be boiled down to a few bumper-stickers. The play would never be created today, much less garner a Pulitzer Prize. By the time Trey Parker parodied Rent in Team America: World Police (calling it Lease), the show had long lost its context. The era of Rent is nearly as distant to us as Saturday Night Fever.

Still, Rent will probably survive, as it should. As I sat in the audience of the Cresson Lake Playhouse, I wondered how this down-home crowd would respond to same-sex kisses, simulated sex, abusive cops and crass hobos. Would folks walk out, furious that Obama socialists had infected their town? All my fears dissipated by intermission. Deep down, Rent is about more than bohemian life. It’s about love in a time of dying, unconditional friendship through poverty and decay. Take away the grungy outfits and endless pop-culture references, and Rent is still La Bohème – a story of youth and perseverance. As the cast bowed and reprised “Seasons of Love,” the Thursday-night crowd stood and clapped along. Guys in baseball caps and old women in sweaters smiled and wept. If Rent can find a home in a Cambria County barn, it can find a home anywhere. And that can only help.

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