Students explore sexuality, relationships in renowned ‘Rent'

by Trevelyan Wing | 5/23/11 10:00pm

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The student production of
by Gavin Huang / The Dartmouth

"There's partial nudity," Haakonsen joked. "I think I was supposed to warn people about that."

Narrated by Mark (Eric Waskowicz '14), the musical rock opera takes the audience on a journey through the lives of eight poverty-stricken young people living the Bohemian life in the AIDS-afflicted East Village of 1990s New York City.

"I think the topic of AIDS is really interesting and important, and it was really a big issue in the '90s," Haakonsen said. "It's also a commentary about us today. We still deal with these issues, and they're not issues that we face ourselves."

The colorful array of characters includes an aspiring documentary filmmaker, his HIV-positive musician roommate, an AIDS-afflicted gay man who dreams of opening a restaurant out West, an Ivy League graduate and a drag queen. The variety of the cast of characters helps deconstruct the notion that AIDS is an exclusively "gay disease," according to Haakonsen.

"Not all the characters who are gay in this musical have AIDS, and not all the people who have AIDS in the musical are gay," Haakonsen said.

The various characters were introduced via Waskowicz's narration as Mark, which effectively melded the disparate musical numbers together. The opera is triggered by the arrival of Mark's former-roommate-turned-landlord demanding rent, and the ensuing numbers tell the story of the community's impoverishment, but also the ways in which the young men and women cling to friendship and love.

"This musical explores all different kinds of interactions and relationships, not necessarily heteronormative ones, not necessarily relationships you would consider normal in any way," Haakonsen said.

The show itself, connected to the PRIDE Week Theater Festival, represents a continuation of a festival started last year by Addie Gorlin '11 and Chiara Klein '10 which consisted of "The Laramie Project" and "Zanna, Don't!" for which Haakonsen stage managed.

"Theater can be a really important avenue to discuss social change," Haakonsen said. "I wanted to make sure that the PRIDE Week Theater Festival didn't turn into a one-time thing."

"Rent" was an ideal play for spurring discussion of social change due to its prominence among students and other theater-lovers.

"I was looking for gay musicals, and there are not many," Haakonsen said. "I picked Rent' because it is so well known, and I hoped that that would help bring attention to both PRIDE Week and to the issues that it covers."

"Rent" is the first musical Haakonsen has ever directed, though she has had experience as an assistant director and is a veteran stage manager.

"It was ambitious, but I think it's turning out really well," Haakonsen said.

On opening night, the audience seemed to agree. The cast delivered a strong and spirited performance, with Xavier Curry '14 bringing down the house with his interpretation of the drag queen.

"Xavier joined our cast only halfway through the process, so he learned all of act one on his own," Haakonsen said. "It's a big show, and the cast is fantastically talented."

The show's quality is even more remarkable given that more than half the cast members are non-actors.

"They're a cappella people, people who like Rent' or people who just felt like acting this term," Haakonsen said. "They're not necessarily the typical theater students."

Unlike most theater department shows, which are produced in the Bentley Theater, "Rent" was set in the less-formal Collis Common Ground.

The production was well-suited to the ambience and intimate nature of Collis Common Ground. Above all, however, the actors brought with them a certain enthusiasm and authenticity to the piece, and their acting was rendered more effective as a result Mimi's near-death scene proved especially poignant.

"The Bentley is a lovely space, but there are a few problems with it, one being that people who come to Bentley shows are theater people," Haakonsen said. "We wanted [Rent'] to be more open to campus, and Collis in particular is a thoroughfare."

The second and final performance of "Rent" will take place on Tuesday at 7:30 p.m. in Collis Common Ground.

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