“RENT” defies harmful social stereotypes


Sheyda Ladjevardi

“How we gonna pay last year’s rent?” James Patricio and Isaiah Mendiola sing on stage together.

Against a backdrop of vibrant flyers and graffiti, a solemn opening narration set the scene for Dougherty’s performance of “RENT,” transporting the audience to a world of young artists struggling to survive in New York’s Bohemian Alphabet City.

The DV Theatre Arts Program presented “RENT” Feb. 7-10, telling the story of people struggling against the passage of time at the crossroads of fate, love and friendship. The musical — created by playwright Jonathan Larson — features vibrant characters with unique ties to one another. Beneath their friendships and liveliness resides the ever-present threat of AIDS, which, combined with the wild variability of life, slowly pulls the group apart.

Dougherty’s performance of “RENT” is a production with electrifying song and dance, along with its fair share of melancholic moments that elicited tears from the audience. It focuses on the friendship of roommates Mark Cohen, Roger Davis and Tom Collins (portrayed by senior James Patricio, freshman Isaiah Mendiola and senior Filo Ebid, respectively). Davis falls in and out of love with Mimi Marquez (portrayed by senior Jade Tsao) while Collins finds fleeting happiness with Angel Schunard (portrayed by sophomore AJ Sohrabi) before her untimely death. Joanne Jefferson (played by senior Riya Gupta) and Maureen Johnson (played by junior Izzy Roth) are a couple of polar opposites, but both organize protests against the landowners who mistreat the artists and transients of the neighborhood.

Patricio explained his character’s role in the musical, describing the importance of Cohen’s perspectives as one of the only characters physically untouched by the AIDS epidemic to the main storyline.

“My character Mark, he is an aspiring filmmaker; out of all of the six main characters, he does not have AIDS. His main worry is that all of his friends will die before him and he will be left alone. He wants to take a video of everything that is good and pure in the world so that he can distract himself from the fact that everyone else has AIDS,” Patricio stated.

Indeed, as much as “RENT” is a celebration of the best parts of life, it is also a reflection of the ephemeral and unpredictable nature of human life. The very real threat of death shadows many of the characters as they navigate life in Manhattan, often producing an undercurrent of desperation for more time.

“While this is also less dance-based and more movement-based, this one requires a lot of energy to be put in to be something that we usually aren’t, because we’re Dougherty students and we have to fit these angsty New Yorkers from the 1990’s,” Patricio said. “It’s a different feel from ‘In the Heights’ or ‘Grease,’ where that energy was put into dance or this boyish charm, but with ‘RENT,’ it’s put into this angst and this emotion, where there’s this feeling of ‘If I don’t do this, I’m dead.’”

This raw emotion is further exemplified through the characters’ relationships. Amidst tightly-knit friendships, the characters find themselves entrenched in a struggle to find love as the passage of time threatens to cut their lives short. Struggling musician Davis and recovering addict and sex worker Marquez are caught in a game of push and pull, with Marquez seeking to live vivaciously in the time she has left while Davis is hesitant to fall in love again after realizing just how short life can be. The inconsistency between Marquez and Davis represents the way romantic relationships develop over the course of the musical.

“Mimi is a character who has AIDS but still lives everyday like it is her last; she loves hard and is vulnerable.” Tsao recalled. “To really understand RENT and its characters, I did lots of research on Mimi and the Bohemian lifestyle.”

Contrary to Mimi and Roger’s relationship, Schunard and Collins have a more straightforward romance. Mutual attraction coupled with the diagnosis with HIV create an immediate connection between the pair. However, Schunard’s quickly advancing illness complicates their relationship in the second act; an initially promising future between the two quickly ends in tragedy. Ebid explained the difficulty of portraying a complex character like Collins, and how he kept himself focused during more emotional scenes.

“It was really tough for me to get such a difficult character down,” Ebid said, adding, “You have to understand what a character is thinking at all times, and you can’t also show that you’re thinking on stage . . . That was the hardest part, just to balance all these things together and merge them into the character.”

Mr. Paul Vega, director of the musical and the Theatre Arts program, further elaborated on how the cast prepared for each of their roles and the task of carrying heavier themes throughout the play.

“We had a lot of discussions about different ways to understand the character,” Vega said. “Sometimes I would give real-life examples about people who have gone through similar situations, just to kind of get them in the right mindset of what they need to do to create the character in a believable way.”

While AIDS is the central threat to each of the relationships in “RENT,” it isn’t the only factor that introduces tension into the musical; substance abuse, poverty and brutality are also issues explored on stage.

“When [these issues are] presented on stage, [they] force the audience to confront these issues and actually think about them,” Vega said. “It’s an important thing to do because it treats these issues with humanity instead of treating them as statistics.”

“RENT” continues themes of diversity and inclusion that were first established in “LOVE/SICK,” the program’s fall production. In addition to its thematic focus on romance and the fragility of life, the musical highlights and seeks to reduce stigma surrounding AIDS, particularly its association with the LGBTQ+ community.

“Mainstream media has a very narrow view of the people that make up our society, so anytime we can present the stories of underrepresented cultures, we need work to ensure that they are seen,” Vega stated on “RENT”’s inclusion of different expressions of sexuality and gender.

The DV Theatre Art Program’s production of “RENT” shone a critical spotlight on both issues affecting marginalized groups and the versatility of the students involved. Ebid elaborated on the sense of camaraderie and closeness between members of the cast that made the musical possible.

“We’re so close to one another, and we feel every moment of the show together. It’s amazing. Just simply feeling their support, I’m so honored and grateful to have their company with me,” Ebid said. “It took a lot of practice, but it took a lot of support as well. I think we all just rose to the occasion for this show.”

The show was a particularly sentimental production for its cast, as seniors performed their last musical on the DVHS stage. The message of loving and living resonated with the cast members who commented on their favorite elements of the play.

“Our last performance, especially, was very emotional. It was hard for us seniors not to cry, and I just wanted to hold out that last note as long as I could because I knew once the song was over, my DV drama career was over,” Patrico, whose role as Mark Cohen has a special place in his heart, said.

Tsao echoed his sentiments, explaining what the musical meant for her in her final year with the program and elaborating on the bond she shares with her castmates.

“‘RENT’ is by far my favorite production that I have been a part of in my high school experience. Something about this show brings people together and reminds us that there is no day but today,” she said. “I know that I will never forget about the cast and the joy we shared bringing ‘RENT’ to life.”

Both the hardships endured by the protagonists of “RENT” and the moments that embrace what life has to offer are essential components of the play, communicating the musical’s message of valuing relationships with others and loving unconditionally.

“I think that the most important thing that people should know about the performance is while the subject matter is a little mature, I think the message is something that is universal no matter your age,” Vega explained. “I think the most meaningful thing about ‘RENT’ was the way the students came together to really show how important it is to share love and respect for one another, and [they were] able to spread that message to the audience.”