If there is one thing to take away from the musical Rent, it’s the power and importance of love and friendship in whatever difficulties you may face. The story, born exactly twenty years ago, follows the lives of eight eclectic characters set against the backdrop of the 1980s HIV/AIDS epidemic. The Arts Undergraduate Theatre Society (AUTS)’s production of Rent encompasses not only an impeccable soundtrack loaded with rock anthems and beautiful harmonies, but also carries on the show’s tradition of youthful and idealistic characters, sharing difficult and timeless experiences with sexual expression, relationships, drugs, and homelessness.
Set in the East Village of New York City, the story follows Mark Cohen, an impoverished filmmaker and the narrator of the show, who acts both as an observer and a fully participating character. Cohen attempts to capture the events of the eighties in New York, including the struggles seven of his friends are facing due to the HIV/AIDS outbreak. These events include an unorthodox protest, a drag queen murdering a dog, and Cohen’s roommate Roger continuously attempting to write his song to no avail. This is only a taste of what lies in store in Rent, and for all of its comedy, there is just as much heartbreak. This dichotomy is perhaps what makes this musical so enduring and universal.
The musical’s director, Daniel Austin-Boyd, explains this universality by applying it to the McGill community. “I think it’s just really relevant to a student population. […] A number of issues dealt with in Rent […] you see […] every day: issues of sexuality, of poverty, issues of disease, isolation, and community. All these things are things students deal with,” the director shared in an interview with the Daily.
Austin-Boyd further added, “These people [in the cast] are the age roughly that their [characters are] at. So [the cast] can really connect to the characters and produce a better performance.”
There were some impressive technical and aesthetic aspects to AUTS’s show. East Village New York during the 1980s can be difficult to depict in just one setting, but with the graffiti walls and second-level balconies accessed by ladders and backlit windows, set designer Sarah Denis grasps the nuances of the neighbourhood and maximize the space for the performers. The decision to situate the musical band beside the set is also essential to the overall relaxed, free spirited vibe.
As for the stand-out performers, they include Sophie Doyle’s portrayal of Maureen Johnston, a bisexual woman who loves to rave against “the establishment” in whatever forms it may come. Doyle exudes such ease, vocal strength, and timing that it’s hard to peel eyes away from this charismatic character. Another impressive performance comes from Zachary Sykes as Tom Collins, a queer professor at New York University whose revolutionist and anarchist political affiliations are clashed against his romanticized sensibilities. Sykes’s performance balances the emotional depth and strength that accompanies the character, while demonstrating impressive vocal capabilities.
It is, however, the overall ensemble cast that is at the apex of what makes the performance so enjoyable, with the musical ‘s theme of community lying at the core of it. The acting is full of passion and energy, and in every musical number the cast falls into the show’s impressive choreography with grace and emotional depth.
The only sore point of the show is the choreography for the musical number “Seasons of Love,” where too many complex lifts and twists are put into the number to portray the emotional intensity of the music. A more subdued form of choreography would have captured the rawness much better for such an iconic song.
It seems that the essence of Rent is to recognize that in any context, regardless of means or circumstance, one can empathize and identify with these characters and the conflicts they face in a meaningful way. Their trials and tribulations, intensified by the magnitude of the HIV/AIDS crisis, are overcome by fighting isolation and seeking strength in a friendly circle. In some ways, this method is never truer than in being a student at McGill. AUTS’s cast of Rent does an excellent job of bringing the idea to the forefront and letting students know they are not alone.
AUTS’s Rent runs this week from January 28 to January 30 in Moyse Hall. Tickets are $15 for students and seniors, and $20 for general admissions.