Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.
Rent is Signature's return to live performance after many months of virtual productions, and it's astonishingly powerful as it shows people building their own society in the shadow of AIDS and drug abuse.
The environmental staging in the MAX Theatre places the audience around an irregularly shaped acting area (designed by Paige Hathaway), with five accomplished musicians tucked into corners of the set. To stress the experience of life among the disenfranchised in 1990s New York City, Hathaway's design incorporates protest posters created in a community where much of the available housing has become derelict; some developers invest in improvements because they see gentrification, not working with the existing residents, as the way forward.
Director Matthew Gardiner is working with 15 singing actors who demonstrate utter commitment to the material while navigating Rickey Tripp's dazzling solo and group choreography. Adam Honoré's intense lighting design and Ryan Hickey's sound design bring the audience even further into the characters' reality.
Vincent Kempski and Jake Loewenthal give assured performances as Roger Davis and Mark Cohen, friends and roommates trying to make art (rock songs and video documentaries respectively) while living in a loft in a disused industrial building. They are the backbone of the plot, but the surrounding characters get more chance to sparkle, which they do definitively.
David Merino demands attention as drag queen Angel, wearing some of Erik Teague's most imaginative costumes (for example, a red bodysuit under a sweeping red skirt with appliqued flowers, open to reveal red garters holding up shiny thigh-high black boots), and his dramatic arc with philosopher and computer hacker Tom Collins (Josh A. Dawson, warm and emotional) dominates the production. As Mimi, the club dancer who meets Roger, Arianna Rosario plays up the character's determination as well as her pathos. Katie Mariko Murray blazes as performance artist Maureen, especially in her hilarious "Over the Moon" and her steamy interplay with lawyer Joanne (Ines Nassara), while wearing more of Teague's flashiest designs.
Rent runs through January 2, 2022, at Signature Theatre's MAX Theater, 4200 Campbell Avenue, Arlington VA. For tickets and information, please call 703-820-9771 or 1-800-955-5566 or visit www.signature-theatre.org.
Book, music, and lyrics by Jonathan Larson
Roger Davis: Vincent Kempski