For a summer staycation, the musical RENT might just do the job, if only for an evening. Now playing at the Coastal Repertory Theater, the story takes theatergoers to the late '80s-early '90s grit of the Lower East Side in New York City — possibly as far as one can go from Half Moon Bay's sandy beaches, ocean vistas and wholesome shops on Main Street — without leaving Main Street itself.
The scene is familiar: a group of young, twentysomething artists trying to get by on their passions, not by the sum of their paychecks. As they go about their lives over the course of a year, each goes through their own transformation and turning points.
There's Mark, an aspiring filmmaker, who shoots cinema verité with a vintage camera; Roger, a guitarist who was recently blindsided by the suicide of his girlfriend; Maureen, the curvy performance artist who left Mark for another woman; street musician Angel, who is HIV+; and Mimi, a dancer who seems to have unapologetic purpose at the beginning, but becomes more directionless and waif-like as time goes by.
Much of the beginning scenes center around the group's economic strife and daily struggles, juxtaposed by bursts filled with hopeful dreams. It was hard to become engrossed by these characters' plights in the first half of the production, when the young, fresh-faced actors raced around the stage energetically and sang about shivering in their apartment and not being able to pay the rent. The backup ensemble of these actors as drug addicts staggering on the streets and as homeless people slumped on the sidewalks seemed out of place as well.
The songs in this first half were not suited to show off the vocal ability of each actor to its peak, either. The main performance highlight in this segment was Catherine Traceski (Maureen) during her character's performance art show. The sheer over-the-top theatrics and out-there antics familiar to anyone who's seen performance art were commendable. Her raunchy grit stole the show in a show filled with both raunch and grit.
During last Saturday night's performance, the change in force and tone after the intermission was dramatic. It was almost as if another director had taken over during the break and commanded that the players step up their game, not unlike a locker room huddle during the halftime show. But in this case, it wasn't the game of the actors that appeared to be lacking — it was that the tepid plot of the first half went on too long and could have been upped in intensity much earlier on.
In the second half, the characters' life-altering changes, along with the rippling effects and shifts on the larger group that came about as a result of these changes, were absorbing and suddenly believable. Powerful vocals, especially a duet between Traceski and Mary Ann Jesadavirojna (playing Joanne, Maureen's girlfriend), were arresting, and one couldn't help but wonder why these actors' voices were kept under wraps so far into the show.
The show was at its best when the stage was "split" so that the story was moved forward in parallel fashion among two sets of characters at the same time, accompanied by the sounds of a song with lyrics that spoke to the universal themes and life lessons for the characters on stage and the audience members alike.
This production of RENT is stirring and life affirming. It's filled with melancholy, yearning, and sadness, but has a lot of hope, love and joy as well. It will make you examine the meaning of your own life and those of others, while perhaps gaining some perspective as you see what unfolds on stage.
And isn't that what art is supposed to be all about?
"RENT" plays at the Coastal Repertory Theater on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays until August 20. Showtimes are 8 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, and 2 p.m. on Sundays. This show is for mature audiences only. For advance tickets and more information about the show, visit the theater's website.