American Culture in Vilnius: Rent, the Musical

DSCF3222 On Saturday, some friends and I went to see a production of Rent, put on by the Lithuanian National Drama Theatre in Vilnius. According to the program, this is the first presentation of the musical in the country, and given Lithuania’s conservative culture, I was curious to see how a musical that includes openly homosexual relationships, blatant sexual content, AIDS, drug use, and urban poverty would go over. I applaud the theatre for choosing this play, and the actors for performing in it.

There were, however, several obstacles to overcome in viewing this production. At this point I issue the obligatory spoiler alert for both the Vilnius production (though it has now ended its 2 day run) and Jonathan Larson’s musical. Continue on at your own peril.

It goes without saying that as the cast was all Lithuanian, this is the whitest Rent I have ever seen. I actually laughed when Mimi sang about her home where the “Spanish babies cry,” as Mimi Marquez was played by a spindly blond with a thick Baltic accent. Several of the actors struggled with the English (Maureen was nearly incomprehensible while speaking, though her singing was clearer), the choreography better resembled a community college production than a professional company,  and the acting was overwrought and lacked subtlety, but these were not as glaring as some of the implications of changes to the production itself.

Some changes were cultural, I suspect. I wondered as I watched just how much a Lithuanian audience would understand the references to American urban culture at the end of the 1990s. Could they understand the ironic contrast between the open spaces of the idealized west versus the press of New York inner city squalor in “Santa Fe”? Did they have the background of how race, sexual orientation, poverty, and a corporate/capitalism-based pharmaceutical industry have impacted America’s LGBT and minority communities? I had to hope so. There were some inserted expositions of dialog, namely to actually describe what AIDS is. A friend of mine whose Lithuanian is better than my own pointed out that the Lithuanian subtitles that were displayed above the stage also spelled out the full name of MIT, and went to great lengths to differentiate each of the slang terms for drugs as they were named. I get these changes. It is a fine line between spelling everything out and offering small changes to help an unfamiliar audience better understand the context.

The musical began with a shortened rendition of the song “La Vie Boheme” in part, I think, to introduce each character by name, which was inserted as a kind of beauty pageant display where each character stepped forward as he or she was named. “La Vie Boheme” was reprised later in its original spot, which, while repetitious, was not onerous.

But other changes were less logical. Rather than end Act 1 with the defiant “La Vie Boheme,” the play inserted “Will I,” which should have been sung during the scene at the Life Support meeting. Ending the first act on such an uncertain and downcast song, first of all changed the emotional power going into the second act, but also unnecessarily disrupted the chronology. Deleted was the scene where Maureen and Joanne break-up (which happens in the middle of “La Vie Boheme”), so that when Joanne remarks on this at the start of Act 2, it did not make sense. Gone also was the entire riot that Maureen’s performance starts, which is celebrated at the end of “La Vie Boheme” and which precipitates Mark’s offer of a contract with Buzzline. Again, when this was mentioned later, we had to wonder ‘what riot’?

The most alarming change to the play, however, and the one with disturbing implications, is the ending. While Rent has as its source material La Boheme, which has a much bleaker ending with the consumptive Mimi dying, Rent resurrects her after a vision of the afterlife where the previously deceased Angel tells her to “Turn around, girlfriend, and listen to that boy’s [Roger’s] song.” But this did not happen in the Vilnius production. Shockingly, when a white clad Angel returned to the stage to escort Mimi away, they kept right on walking off the stage. And that was it. That was the end. There was no reprise of “No Day But Today,” where the surviving characters, which should include Mimi, sing about taking each moment as it comes and celebrating life and love in the here and now. Nope. Angel was literally the Angel of Death, and Mimi and Roger’s love ended after his heartfelt serenade, “Your Eyes.”


One of my friends suggested a small budget as the culprit, which would make sense if not for the fact that this production actually sang the same song twice, thus adding to the time and production rather than decreasing it.

Let’s look at the end of the play: the two characters who transgress conservative norms most severely–Angel, the cross-dressing gay man, and Mimi, the promiscuous stripper drug-addict–die. Rather than end triumphantly, as the original play text allows, we end with two of the three relationships broken by death, presumably due to their own lifestyle choices (ie: Angel died of complications of AIDS and Mimi from a return to drug use). Adding to my suspicion is the way the actors themselves portrayed the queer characters. With the exception of the actor who played Angel, who was a highlight in terms of acting and singing, the other actors who played gay characters seemed uncomfortable in their roles. While Angel and Collins did share two very passionate kisses on stage, and demonstrated a lot of physical contact and affection, the actor who played Collins was clearly reluctant and often passed off the tender moments with uncomfortable laughter or hesitation. The actors playing Maureen and Joanne were also less physical than other productions I have seen, though perhaps this was meant to play up the tension in their relationship. The overall effect, however, was that while the characters’ words said celebrate this love, the actors themselves undermined the message.

As this was my first foray into musical theatre here in Vilnius, I’ll have to withhold judgment that this was a sweeping commentary of one culture’s attitude toward complex societal issues. Maybe something was lost in translation this one time.



Market day

One of my favorite events in Vilnius is the Kaziuko Muge (St. Casimir’s Fair) which takes place in early March. I’ve always been attracted to shiny, colorful things, and this huge market, which extends from one end of Gedimino prospektus to the other and wraps around the Old Town, is full of them! There are traditional folk crafts, jewelry, scarves and hats (because, you know, it’s still 30 degrees out!) and food stalls with traditional Lithuanian foods.

There were even some live performances, like these student folk dancers (they pulled in by-standers to dance with them. Fortunately not me):


Medical experience

I visited the doctor for the first time since living overseas. I wasn’t quite sure how it would be, but the doctor was recommended by friends. He’s Australian, so his English was good (no jokes about Australians speaking English) and I felt comfortable with his expertise. My visit with him was professional, tidy, and very much like I have experienced back in the U.S.

He was concerned about my cough, and so he sent me over to the Centro Poliklinika, one of the medical clinics here, for a chest x-ray. My experience there, however, was not like any I’ve had in the U.S.

Since my doctor had called ahead, I did not have to wait to be seen. I handed the technician my appointment slip, he read it, and started speaking to me in Lithuanian. When I told him that I don’t understand Lithuanian very well, he went to his computer, typed something and showed me. In Google Translate he had written, “Take off your clothes.”

We were standing in the reception area of radiology. There were no other patients, but there were two other technicians. I made a gesture over my body: all my clothes or just the top?

He made circling motions over his chest, like he was rubbing himself down with oil or something. I got the picture. Another technician, a woman, added: “And bra.”

I had been warned by a friend that this kind of experience was usual, so I did as instructed. I’m not body shy, and I told myself this is their job, they do this all day. Besides, an 80 year-old woman had just finished up before I got there, so I told myself they had probably seen worse.

Once I was topless, the male tech ushered me into the x-ray room and rather mechanically positioned me chest-side against a large glass/plastic (very cold!) wall or plate. I held my arms out like a gingerbread man and then the tech went back to his little command station, mimed that I should take a deep breath, and he took the x-ray. He then re-positioned me like I was in the body-scanners at airports, with upraised arms, fully facing the glass window where he and the other techs could see me. Great. Again, he mimed breathing in, and he clicked the machine. That was it. He waved to my clothes. “Go home.”

I feel like I have been somehow initiated into a weird secret society.

Hero’s Journey

I was asked to speak at my landlord’s son’s middle school on Friday. The boy’s English class had been studying movies, Hollywood, stuntmen and such, and as a native English speaker, they wanted to talk with me about my life in California (I told them right away that I was not from Hollywood) and about movies they liked. Their teacher asked me to share something with them on the topic, and so I thought of the Hero’s Journey, a very common plot structure for most Hollywood movies, and quite frankly, most of Western literature. So, I showed them the upside-down check mark, we talked about backstory, inciting incidents, obstacles, the wise mentor trope, climax and resolution. We used the first Harry Potter movie as an example, and traced Harry’s journey to see if he followed the steps. (By the way, he does!).

After this discussion, we decided we wanted to write our own movie plot. So, I present to you, the 6th and 7th grade classes’ movie, Olaf the Bodybuilder.

Olaf was teased and bullied as a child because he had red hair and was overweight. However, his mother loved him and helped him through the experience. When Olaf grew up, he became a bodybuilder. One day, however, he received a mysterious text message that his beloved mother had been killed. He had to find out who the murderer was.

With the help of his friends, Olaf was able to track down the killer, only to find that it was his girlfriend! After an intense battle with her, she escaped, and so, Olaf’s journey will continue in Olaf the Bodybuilder 2.

They were sweet kids–the boys were squirrely and dominated the time (as you can probably tell by the movie plot), though I tried include everyone–but man, it reminded me of my student teaching days! (And why I didn’t become a middle school teacher). To be honest, though, sometimes my university students are just as bad. The joy’s of teaching.


No Snow Christmas

Everyone but me seems disappointed that we will not have a white Christmas this year. Granted, it is only Christmas Eve, so there is almost 24 hours left for the snow to fall…but, naw. While it is pretty to look out at a soft drift of newly fallen white powder, the aftermath of muddy slush or treacherously icy sidewalks, I can do without. It must be the California in me that doesn’t need snow to have Christmas.

I can also do without the seasonal colds, but apparently I don’t get an out on that. I’m sick. Like hack-up-a-lung, no voice sick. I’m doing my best Rudolph impersonation this year. Even so, my roommate and I are having friends over for Christmas Eve, and as long as I am not bedridden, tomorrow I’ll go to our Christmas morning church service, and then to a friend’s for lunch. I prefer a low-key Christmas, for various reasons, but it is also nice to spend the day with people you care about. I’ll also be able to Skype with the fam (and did a little bit earlier).

But even without snow, Vilnius does Christmas well. Here are just a few pictures of our Christmas market, and the main streets all decked out with boughs of holly (Not really. Mainly just LED lights).

Linksmų Kalėdų/ Merry Christmas!

The B Word

In my mind, bureaucracy might as well be a 4 letter word. Almost all of my most anxiety-ridden, ulcer-inducing memories have centered on some kind of government agency. My palms get sweaty, my heart rate quickens and I have the pit-of-the-stomach feeling that things are going to crumble apart and I will end up in some underground cell in some unpronounceable place.

Today I had the joy sitting in the Lithuanian immigration office for the second time, since, well, the first time after a 3 hour wait, my application was summarily rejected by an ill-tempered woman who, though I know she spoke English (because I had heard her in the office) refused to do so with me. She had sent me off that time with a sneer and a list of other documents I needed. This time, I believed I had the documents, but no. Not only did she reject the ones I offered, but she added to the list. Now I have 2 more things I have to track down before my current visa expires in about a month.

I don’t think it is coincidence that I have started re-reading Ann Voskamp’s One Thousand Gifts, given to me by a beloved mentor who had been battling cancer at the time. To crudely paraphrase the beautifully poetic and convicting memoir, count your blessings. Literally. (That is for my roommate, K. We roll our eyes at how horribly misused is the word ‘literally,’ but here, I mean it).

To live a grateful, thankful, eucharisteo-filled life is to count each day, and all that comes in it, as a gift from God.

I had a hard time with this one on the bus ride home from immigration. Knowing that I am called to pray for my enemies, I prayed for the ill-tempered woman who has (twice!) rejected my application. My prayer was studded with words like “heathen,” “wrath,” and “smite.” When I caught myself, I rather reluctantly changed my mind, but my heart is harder (I mean that in both senses). Being at immigration and dealing with her and the whole process makes me bitter. It makes me dislike being here. It makes me long for the US where, though not perfect, the ways are familiar.

But today, but immigration, is the gift that God has given me today. I count it, even though I don’t understand it at all.

Today, my landlord and landlady were incredibly kind to drive me to immigration, wait with me, and help me understand what the ill-tempered woman was telling me. Today, though my status is in flux, I have the stability of a wonderful job teaching university students, a comfortable flat. Today, I went to the grocery store at the bottom of the hill and bought good, (somewhat) healthy food which I will prepare tonight and enjoy with my roommate while we binge watch Netflix. I am not a refugee stranded at a foreign border. I am not in fear for my life, or that of family members. 1, 2, 3, 4, 1,000. I am thankful, for this is the day that the Lord has made, and I will absolutely rejoice in it.