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Wednesday, Mar 24 1999
Vive la vie Bohme
Rent. By Jonathan Larson. Directed by Michael Greif. Starring Daphne Rubin-Vega, Dean Balkwill, Trey Ellett, Erin Keaney, and others. At the Golden Gate Theater, 1 Taylor (at Golden Gate), through Aug. 1. Call 512-7770.

Bang! Written and directed by Mark Jackson. Starring Caroline Ford, Karen Hallock, Chris Kuckenbaker, and Beth Wilmurt. At Exit Stage Left, 156 Eddy (at Taylor), through March 27. Call 751-5922.

Ever since Jonathan Larson died of a burst aorta just as his show went into rehearsals, in 1996, there has been a breathy sort of reverence and legend surrounding Rent, partly because Larson lived the vie boheme he celebrates. He was a struggling playwright and songwriter who for seven years poured his anguish into the concept (which someone else thought up) of blending La Boheme with modern East Village characters to revive the Sondheim-style musical. But Puccini's opera drew its plot from an older source -- Scenes de la Vie de Boheme, a novel by Henri Murger, who recorded "fairly accurate portraits" (according to my opera guide) of his Latin Quarter friends in 1840s Paris. So Rent is a heady mixture of new and antique bohemia, choreographed and set to simple rock 'n' roll, with a legendary death and a pedigree that Broadway promoters slaver for.

Now, I know the whole concept is kind of dumb. I know a splashy Broadway production can't evoke East Village life any better than Las Vegas can evoke, say, Paris. And I know that spending thousands of dollars on a set to make it look downscale -- with stylized graffiti on the brick wall backdrop and an incomprehensible tangle of scaffolding and wrecked bikes -- is what people mean by "absurd." I also resent the way Rent has been sold to me as my generation's Hair. But in spite of everything, the show isn't bad.

Mark the filmmaker and Roger the rock singer live rent-free in a loft on the Lower East Side. Their landlord is also their former roommate, Benny, who's married a rich woman from Connecticut. As the show opens, Benny calls Mark and Roger to demand rent from the last year, which of course they can't pay. Benny has gone back on his promise to let them freeload because he wants to raze the building for a "cyberarts studio." The rest of the show involves Mark and Roger and all the other tenants mobilizing to keep Benny the Yuppie Scum from evicting them.

There are subplots: Roger falls in love with Mimi, a dancer who lives next door who used to be Benny's girlfriend. Mark's ex-girlfriend Maureen is a performance artist who stages a protest show against Benny. Their friend Tom Collins has AIDS and falls in love with another man, Angel, who has AIDS. Roger and Mimi both have AIDS. In fact, almost everyone has AIDS, and the shadow of death over their lives motivates the carpe diem number, "Another Day," that seems to epitomize Rent.

But the focus here is Mimi, the siren of living-for-the-moment who shares a name with her counterpart in La Boheme. Daphne Rubin-Vega plays her with electric intensity. She's a lithe, catlike woman with tousled dark hair and a Latin pout in her voice who can fill even the corniest line with impossible yearning. "Light My Candle" is a perfect example. When Mimi comes over to Roger's apartment because the power's gone out, and asks for a match to light her candle, she drops her "stash" on the floor -- just as Mimi in La Boheme drops her key. While they crawl around looking for it Roger can't help noticing Mimi's butt, since it's wrapped in blue vinyl stretch pants. "They say I have the best ass below 14th Street," she sings. "Is it true?"

Larson can't be accused of subtlety. He won a Pulitzer for the book, but the pleasure of Rent isn't in the words or the concept, or even the music, which sounds like what it is: Broadway-diluted rock. It's in the enthusiasm radiated by the cast. Rubin-Vega is irresistible. She originated Mimi in New York, and she invests so much rich feeling in the song about lighting her candle (and in every other song) that you overlook the goofy symbolism.

The rest of the show works for the same reasons. If Mark looks like a caricature of a young filmmaker, with limp blond hair and horn-rimmed glasses, Trey Ellett makes him likable. (He and Kamilah Martin do an especially good job tangoing up and down the stage in "Tango: Maureen.") If Angel is a cliche as a sharp-tongued transvestite, Shaun Earl immerses himself so fully in the role -- and dances so impressively in heels -- that you don't really mind. Erin Keaney steals the first act as Maureen, with her delightfully weird "Over the Moon," and "Viva la vie Boheme" is a linguistically incorrect but still catchy finale.

But Rent suffers in comparison with La Boheme, not just in the music but in (of all things) irony. The opera is actually funnier. While Puccini's characters insult each other, ignore each other, trade witty quips, and in general misbehave with so much abandon that they really do seem like a circle of artists, Rent seems overpolished, with most of its mischief carefully steamed away. I blame this on the culture of Broadway, on the risk-phobic money behind its shows, and on the pretentious fever that's been following Rent around the country. The Examiner's nightlife writer, Lord Martine, was ravished enough by opening night to write an idiotic column about the musical's "transcendental love," which you should just ignore. It isn't transcendent, or generational, or anything else. It's simply a decent musical, played by a talented cast.

Actual starving artists comprise the cast of Art Street's Bang!, whose opening scene's set is a row of chairs facing the audience. Before the show someone actually sits in one, staring at us, waiting for things to start. This is Eleanor. She's never seen a play in her life. The program leaflet lists both the real actors and the fictional cast of the play within the play -- in this case, a bad melodrama featuring a uniformed revolutionary.


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