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.