‘No day but today’ to go see Dramatech’s ‘Rent’

Angel (Matt Warrington) leans intently onto the stage, Roger Davis (Jayce Schwartz) following. // Photo by Sloan Salinas Student Publications

The scene opens; pan right and zoom in on 349 Ferst Drive, also known as the Dean James E. Dull Theater, the Robert Ferst Center for the Arts black box theater
and most importantly, DramaTech. 

This student-run theater group livens the greater Atlanta area with plays, musicals, improv shows, variety shows and their newest addition — a tap troupe. The group’s current show, which opened on April 7, is the Tony Award-winning musical “Rent.” With the book, music and lyrics originally by Jonathan Larson, the show transports the audience to the Lower East Side of New York City in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. 

From there, the audience follows the intertwined lives of impoverished artists and performers as they try to make a living alongside prejudice and under the weight of the HIV/AIDS crisis.

Mark Cohen (played by Marcus Kurth, second-year SEP) is the show’s narrator and a Jewish American documentary filmmaker. Though he has yet to create a cohesive movie and is thus unemployed, the aspiring director constantly has his camera rolling in an effort to capture raw footage of his surroundings, hoping to finally finish a meaningful film. He films fellow artists while reconciling the impending deaths of many of his close friends who have HIV.

Roger Davis (played by Jayce Schwartz, fourth-year BMED) is Mark’s roommate, an ex-junkie and a once-successful musician left desperately attempting to recapture his song-writing muse after he was diagnosed with HIV. The tortured artist grapples with his frail mortality and his need to write one last great song before his death. 

Tom Collins (played by Connor Herrington, first-year CHBE) is Mark and Rogers’ best friend and a former MIT professor suffering from AIDS. At the start of the show, he is returning to teach at NYU after his stint at MIT and is described as a computer genius and practicing anarchist. Between fighting for the rights of people with AIDS and passing radical ideas onto NYU students, the professor dreams of opening a restaurant in Santa Fe, N.M.

Mimi Márquez (played by Alexia Berenice Torres Calderón, fourth-year ISYE) is Mark and Roger’s neighbor and is a 19-year-old Latina stripper. She is wild, free-spirited, HIV-positive and addicted to heroin. Early in the show, she flirts with Davis, though he is hesitant to reciprocate and begrudgingly attempts to shrug off her advances. 

Angel Dumott Schunard (played by Matthew Warrington, fourth-year ISYE) is a young drag queen and street percussionist playing the drums on a plastic tub. Referred to with she/her pronouns when in drag and he/him pronouns when not, Angel embodies her name, spreading love to everyone she meets and maintaining a positive outlook on life despite his fight with AIDS. 

Maureen Johnson (played by Mimi Kim, fourth-year CS) is a politically-charged performance artist who adores attention and will go to great lengths to get it. Maureen and Mark dated for a time before Maureen cheated on and left him for Joanne Jefferson. The performer is flirty, confident and self-absorbed, living to stir the pot and shock people. Despite this, she is always there when her friends need her (especially if she can make herself the center of attention). 

Joanne Jefferson (played by Hop(e) Kutsche, fourth-year ID) is an Ivy-educated lesbian lawyer with a more well-off life than the avant-garde artists she hangs around. She is organized and methodical in a way that often clashes with Maureen’s bossiness and propensity to flirt with strangers, despite the two being in a relationship. Joanne rebels against her politically powerful parents (one being a judge and the other being a government official) by wearing Doc Martens, not wearing a bra and choosing to accept public-interest cases rather than work at a law firm. 

Benjamin Coffin III (played by Kian Kermani, third-year NEUR) is Mark, Roger and Mimi’s landlord and the first two’s former friend and roommate. Called a “yuppie” and a “sell-out” by his old friends, the landlord begins the show by charging his old roommates a year’s worth of rent money and seemingly losing no sleep knowing his real estate career will come at the expense of squatting artists.

DramaTech’s production of the musical was directed by DramaTech alum Graham P. Sweeney and assistant directed by Vic Paulson, third-year ME. The show is filled with passion and talent from the actors and stage crew alike, making it an extremely enjoyable viewing experience.

From joy, jealousy, love and loss, actors pour their hearts into each character, sharing a wide range of personalities and emotions with the audience. The connecting plotline of living during the AIDS crisis is full of fear and hopelessness at points and the actors seemed to have no trouble leaning into those feelings. For example, Jayce Schwartz — who plays Roger Davis — told the Technique, “[my favorite thing about Roger is] how emotional he gets in the end, especially during act two. [I] loved that; it’s my favorite part.” The emotions are amplified by the interaction between actors, whether ensemble or featured, in a way that displays an ever supportive community and connection without needing explicit dialogue or background.

Another stand-out part of DramaTech’s production of “Rent” was the set and light design. During his interview, Schwartz was enthusiastic, saying, “the set is extremely good. Oh my goodness, with lighting and everything, the crew did a great job.” The staging is minimalistic yet powerful, consisting of moveable wooden pieces, a payphone covered in graffiti and stickers. A “Christmas tree” made of stacked cones, street signs, buckets and other assorted trash wrapped in Christmas lights stretches across the entirety of the stage. According to Teo Drescher, first-year ARCH, who is the head set designer, the wooden pieces “functio[n] like a puzzle, where all the platforms assemble into one large piece. [They are] meant to symbolize the separate characters and storylines all coming together.” At certain points during the show, the actors and stage crew can move the pieces around when they want, allowing the set to change with the scenes without the need for an elaborate, high-tech set. The set’s simplicity worked well alongside the lighting and choreography to keep viewers’ focus on the actors and the story.

Of the string lights, Drescher said, “we loved collaborating with the lights department to incorporate dimmable Christmas lights and fog machines into the set.” The collaboration between the two departments is crucial in various scenes, increasing the impact of what happens and how the characters react. 

The backdrop was a white tarp painted with homages to key graffiti artists of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. One such homage was to Keith Haring (a now-renowned artist and activist during the AIDS epidemic who eventually died from complications of the disease). Another homage was to ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power), which was a politically vocal group that fought to demand rights for people with AIDS through art, marches and civil disobedience; they are still active today. The backdrop also nodded to Félix González-Torres, who was known for his art piece “Untitled,” which used individual candies to depict how his partner’s weight and overall health deteriorated before passing away from an AIDS-related illness. 

The intentionality behind the set design is not exclusive to the stage. The lobby acts as a time machine, beginning a transition from today back to the early ‘90s. As audiences move from the entrance and concessions to their seats in the theater, they can see references to pivotal historical events over the years leading back to the time in which “Rent” is set. The choice to bring elements of the set outside of the theater itself elevates the immersiveness of the production. It reinforces the weight of the AIDS epidemic and its effect on those affected. 

“Rent” has become one of the most well-known musicals since its debut in 1996, with a 12-year Broadway run, three U.S. tours, several international productions, a movie and a live television event — as well as a plethora of award nominations and wins, including 10 Tony nominations and four wins. DramaTech’s production of the show is incredibly executed, with dynamic set design, lighting and electrifying performances from a talented cast. 

Audience members are sure to be impressed, regardless of whether they have seen any variation of the show or have never heard of it. And if the guarantee of a great experience is not enough incentive, Paulson added that there is even more for people to look forward to by saying if there was one reason to see the show, it is to “watch a bunch of people kiss each other!” 

“Rent” will be showing at DramaTech Theatre from April 7-22. Tickets are limited, but updates can be found online at dramatech.org/events or on artsgatech.