Complex Performing Arts Center presents 'Rent'

By Denise Coffey - Staff Writer
Putnam - posted Mon., Jul. 15, 2013
(L-r) Carl Cannella, Paul Lucenti and Jon Carpentier rehearse for 'Rent.' Photos by D.Coffey.
(L-r) Carl Cannella, Paul Lucenti and Jon Carpentier rehearse for 'Rent.' Photos by D.Coffey.

With a raw energy befitting the lower east side of Manhattan in the late 1980s, the cast and crew of “Rent” put on a show at the Complex Performing Arts Center in Putnam that mesmerized audience members on July 14 during its opening weekend. The show will be performed again July 19 and 20 at 8 p.m.

The rock opera based on Puccini's opera “La Boheme” substituted struggling young artists in Paris in the 1840s for struggling young artists in New York City in the 1980s. Instead of fighting the ravages of tuberculosis, "Rent" characters fight the scourge of AIDS and drug addiction. The costumes, the set, musical scores and some of the characters' names were different, but the heart of the story remained true to Puccini's tale that love is eternal and the one true beacon in life.

The set looked like something taken out of the lower east side of Manhattan. Grafitti covered a boarded-up window. A bicycle frame without wheels, a trash can cover and a ladder hung on the wall behind the main stage. A Christmas tree covered in red poinsettias stood in a far corner while television screens dotted the stage. The New York City skyline was been drawn in on a large chalkboard.

It was important to bring New York City to Putnam to make the play resonate with audiences, according to director David Panteleakos. 
But in order to do that, he first had to bring his cast to Manhattan. “I just really thought it was important to head on down to the city and make it authentic,” he said. For Panteleakos, that experience translated into the energy his actors brought to life on stage. Their attitudes, the delivery of their lines, and their posturing were vintage New York. And they had to be for the story to work.

The characters in this Tony Award-winning show struggle with making art, but offer no excuses for their failures. They are harsh critics of friend and foe, but reserve the harshest judgments against themselves. They are defiant in the face of loss and poverty. But when someone they love dies, their worlds are torn apart and their beliefs tested.

The love affair between Jason Preston's drag queen Angel and Cark Cannella's gay anarchist Tom Collins is the pivot point for much of the action in the play. Angel's refusal to bow to social pressures, and her wise response to the curves life throws her way give courage to the other characters who are shattered by her death from AIDS.

Hannah VanMeter is able to show the turbulence that rocks her character's life. She plays erotic dancer Mimi, who is beset by addiction and HIV. The pain on her face as she sings “Without You,” while Angel breaths her last, is exquisite. And when she bundles herself up on stage, drugged out of her mind, you can imagine her blending in with the concrete sidewalk of an unforgiving city.

Paul Lucenti's musician, Roger, and Jon Carpentier's filmmaker, Mark, struggle with the pressures to build their careers and create meaningful personal relationships. And they are both anchors and taskmasters to each other.

Seana Hendrickson's lesbian performance artist, Maureen, and her girlfriend, Joanne, played by Alexis Kurtz, provide an additional twist to the puzzle of love. Even Jon Dyson's miserly, miserable character, Benny, finds enough light in his friend's love and affection to be transformed. 

This play gets so many things right: the harsh ubiquitousness of the city's homeless, the terrors of social and physical plagues, the unforgiving realities of addiction. But it also trumpets the undeniable triumph of love.

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