McGill University is hosting a production of Rent until Jan. 30.
The student-run Arts Undergraduate Theatre Society (AUTS) at McGill University certainly set themselves a challenge when they decided to put on a production of Rent.
Written by the late Jonathan Larson, Rent is a rock musical that was loosely based on one of Puccini’s operas, La Bohème. The play follows a group of young artists in New York City who are living in poverty during the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s.
AUTS has been rehearsing since September, and with good reason—this show is not an easy one to perform. Rent is very music-heavy, with close to no dialogue in-between songs. The songs themselves are also rather demanding—since the show is a rock-opera, the musical numbers are all high-pitched and high-energy. Thankfully, the cast of the McGill group is made up of extraordinarily talented performers who are dedicated to their show. The members of AUTS are all involved with the show because they are passionate about theatre and that shone through their performances.
The lead actors embodied their characters with truthfulness, while the ensemble actors infused life and energy into every big dance number, highlighted by the superb choreography by Debora Friedmann.
The visual design and technical components of the show were nearly flawless, from the stunning lighting effects to the quirky and enticing set design. The world that the designers crafted for the stage allowed the characters to interact with their environment easily and authentically. They truly looked like they were roaming the streets of New York and hanging out in grungy city apartments.
Every show has its faults, however. During the press preview, there were a few awkward transitions between songs and scenes in the performance. There were also some problems with the audio levels of the wireless headset microphones on the actors. However, these problems are exactly the kind of thing that will tighten up and become smoother with more practice and more performances. The show itself was so full of power and energy that these minor complications were hardly noticeable.
Thanks to such a strong delivery of the show, this production of Rent really allows for some bigger messages to come across. Rent offers an intriguing look into the lives of the impoverished while highlighting some difficult truths about the way the world looks down on lower-class people. However, by bringing these issues to light, Rent offers us a place to talk about them. Presenting these problems on the stage makes it easier for us to understand and interpret them.
The show’s director, McGill student Daniel Austin-Boyd, said Rent offers some valuable insights to its audiences. “I really think it shows the importance of community, and the dangers of isolation,” said Austin-Boyd. “I think that’s my take-away message from it.”
Austin-Boyd added he wanted it to show people are capable of overcoming any kind of challenge in their lives. “There is a certain magic to the community that these people have. Because their lives are not great—they’re all poor, most of them have AIDS … So they have bad lives, but they make it work because they have each other,” said Austin-Boyd.
First-year McGill student Olivier Bishop-Mercier, who played the lead role of Mark, mentioned how Rent is different from most other musicals. “It’s a tragedy, but it’s a representation of people of a lower class,” he said. “And that’s not how we usually think about tragedies. We usually think about it as an elevated form of theatre.”
He went on to say that many of the themes in Rent are universal and can be applied to all kinds of people. “I think it’s important to tell this story about how everyone feels these incredibly intense emotions,” said Bishop-Mercier. “It isn’t just reserved for kings and queens.”
Another actor, Sophie Doyle, is a graduate student at Concordia. She said she found it unsettling leaving their late-night rehearsals and “seeing so much poverty and homelessness in downtown Montreal.”
Doyle said that while audiences are watching Rent, they should consider how the characters’ struggles can come to life outside the theatre. “For me, it’s about recognizing these themes that can be put on stage through song and dance, and [about] that sympathy you can feel for the characters,” said Doyle.
She said that while portraying the larger-than-life character of Maureen, she saw a lot of connections to the issues she studies for her degree. “I’m a master’s student in educational studies doing sociology of education, so I look at a lot of this stuff in school,” said Doyle. “It’s interesting to look at it in academia, and then to look at it on the stage, and then to look at it in your own backyard. They’re just very different experiences.”
Rent is playing in the Moyse Hall at McGill from Jan. 28 to Jan. 30. Tickets are $15 for students.