I'm a theater kid — have been since I played Joseph for a Christmas play in Catholic school in the second grade. One thing any theater kid will tell you is that no matter how many musicals they love, there is one that stands above the rest... one where the first time you hear the music or see it performed life in front of you, lives, ahem, rent free in your mind for the rest of your life. For me that play is "Rent" and it always will be.
Loosely based on Puccini's "La bohème," the plot of "Rent" follows a group of starving artists (and a couple of their more successful friends) as they navigate life, love and music in the East Village of the 1980s under the shadow of HIV/AIDS, homelessness and poverty. Writer Jonathan Larson created something so lasting and important that even as we get further away from the time period the musical is set in, the impact on young artists remains just as potent.
In a perfect confluence of artist, production and location, "Rent" comes to Bend for Theater in the Park. Director, choreographer, prop mistress and costumer Michelle Mejaski returns to Drake Park for the fifth time. After producing "Jesus Christ Superstar," "La Cage au Folles," "Into the Woods" and "Spamalot," when this one is done she's taking a break from theater.
"I will be stepping back from theater for a bit, but not out!," says Mejaski. "My life is taking a few different twists and turns that I would like to pursue. As a psychic and evidential medium, I would like to focus my full-time attention to my readings. I have been reading part-time for the past two years under the name RedBird Readings and I feel that it is now time to follow that path fully. I don't think I will ever want to give up dancing altogether, so.... I'll still be around! Even though I am not directing Theater in the Park 2024, I will be its choreographer!"
Mejaski is connected to "Rent," just as I am, where it's something we both feel in our bones as an important cultural artifact. So many things in life are ephemeral, but "Rent" is forever. "I still remember the first connection I felt with these characters, these amazing people," said Mejaski. "Artists, friends, lovers, people struggling to be seen, to find themselves. I cried so hard during the show and also rejoiced. I had the privilege to choreograph Rent in 2017 under the direction of Brad Ruder and Michael Nowak for CTC's [Cascade Theatrical Company's] production of Rent."
"Rent" is topical in 2023 for profoundly different reasons than it has ever been before. For one, it's extremely difficult for the artistic class to pay for their rent in Bend right now. The median home price here is now $800,000, so starving artists are literally starving with rent reaching an all-time high and workers in the service industry moving to outlying areas just to stay in Central Oregon.
Thematically, so much of "Rent" is connected to the '80s HIV/AIDS crisis that watching the show after the COVID pandemic makes the characters' struggles feel more relevant than ever. "I was a teenager in the middle of the AIDS epidemic and honestly did not have an understanding of the disease," says Mejaski. "There was so much misinformation and denial. Fast forward to spring of 2020 and COVID. Again: misinformation, denial and division. Like many, I experienced fear and isolation. Both pandemics have instilled fear, mistrust and anxiety in our communities and population." What is it they say about not learning from the mistakes of our past?
Every character in "Rent" was so expertly crafted by Larson that they simultaneously exist as three dimensionally specific characters as well as broadly drawn archetypes representing different aspects of humanity. Mark is the everyman. Roger is the tragic rock star. Angel is the drag queen with the heart of gold. Maureen is the flighty heartbreaker. Benny is the privileged yuppie. Tom is the intellectual anarchist. Joanne is the political firebrand. Mimi is the broken angel. "They are lovers and fighters," says Mejaski. "We see and share their hopes, regrets, struggles, failures and triumphs. I don't like to say 'character' when referring to the roles our actors are playing. They aren't 'characters,' they are people. Each role is human, filled with perfect imperfections."
Whether "Rent" is part of your life already or if you've never experienced the joy and heartbreak the show has to offer, Mejaski's vision for this musical is not to be missed.