Set roughly 30 years ago during the AIDS epidemic in New York City, Rent is the story of young friends and lovers dealing with their artistic ambitions and life struggles under this specific time and place. The Boston College Theatre Department’s production of this iconic rock opera immersed the audience in the characters’ lives through its vivid performances and set design.
This musical, directed by Larry Sousa, BC’s Monan Professor in Theatre Arts, will be performed from Nov. 16 to Nov. 19 on the Robsham Main Stage. The Monan professorship position allows the theatre department to bring professionals like Sousa, who has performed on Broadway and directed across the country, to teach in the department.
The musical opens with Mark Cohen (Zachary Kariotis, MCAS ʼ25) filming his friend and roommate Roger Davis (Cameron Mysliwicz, MCAS ʼ24) as he tunes his guitar. Roger, like many of the characters, is battling AIDS. He is also battling a bad case of writer’s block, and it takes him the entire musical to write one song.
The two characters lounge on opposite sides of the set, but they don’t feel disconnected. The set is impressive and immersive, including a jungle gym-esque structure with stairs, catwalks, and ladders connecting nearly the entire stage, from the floor to the rafters. In this way, all of the characters seem close to one another, even when they are physically separated.
The rest of the set pieces, however, are relatively simple. An old couch sits on stage for most of the musical, but its meaning changes. One moment, Roger’s neighbor (and on-and-off girlfriend) Mimi Marquez (Ava Estrada, MCAS ʼ27), is shivering alone on the couch, isolated from her feelings and the world. The next, the cast is gathered around the couch, singing about moving to Santa Fe and opening a restaurant together, although they know they are too broke to do it.
Despite the sobering subject matter, the musical isn’t depressing—its characters are warm and darkly funny. They have learned to make jokes and art to get through hardship, and they want the audience to laugh with them.
Shortly after Roger and Mark’s friend Tom Collins (Joseph Gilhooly, MCAS ʼ27) is mugged, he is helped by drag queen Angel Dumott Schunard (Alessandro Cella, MCAS ʼ26), who later appears at their apartment clad in a short, tight, and altogether fabulous Santa costume. Cella brought vibrancy to Angel’s character, dancing on tables and drawing the audience into his life, although most of them may have never experienced what he is going through.
The dynamic between Mark’s ex Maureen Johnson (Elyza Tuan, MCAS ʼ27), and her girlfriend Joanne Jefferson (Haley Raffaele, MCAS ʼ26) was equally impactful. Aside from their powerful vocals, the two portrayed the frustration of loving someone you don’t always agree with well.
The characters’ ability to connect deeply with each other and the audience is part of what makes Rent relatable even today.
According to Sousa in a director’s note, the characters “struggle desperately with survival, each in their own way: by protesting, resisting, attempting to escape, or by just giving up. We’ve all been there, surrounded by a world that feels like it’s on fire.”
Whether through Mark’s films, Angel’s resilience, or the entire cast singing about sex and drugs in “La Vie Bohème,” the lives of the characters in Rent offer the audience inspiring examples of surviving and fighting hardship. With its performance, the theatre department did just that, and more.