Saturday, September 12, 2009

Primum non nocere

Primum non nocere
By Tom Wachunas

Huh? OK, it’s Latin for, “First, do no harm.” Long ago, this dictum became associated with the Hippocratic Oath, though the specific wording never appeared in Hippocrites’ original Greek instructions to doctors. The axiom has, however, nonetheless come to embody the spirit of accountability and intentionality that should drive healers’ actions. Beyond that, it seems to be a relevant admonition for all human interactions, and I couldn’t get it out of my mind after seeing the Players Guild Theatre’s season-opening production of the now iconic rock musical, “Rent.”

Here is a story of scarred, wounded, and dying people who at one point in the show sing out in “Will I?” their communal desire to hang on to their last real possession – their dignity. Their sense of personal worth. Their final measure of a life fully realized. On the face of it, it could be easy to dismiss their groanings as misplaced self-pity in the light of their lifestyles that many of us find unreasonable, self-destructive, and/or morally reprehensible. “Rent” is an unflinching look at the underside of a bohemian world that less adventuresome folks would regard as mystifying or darkly romantic at best, and genuinely terrifying at worst. Which is precisely the reason for us to examine it with open hearts and minds. For this story is not a celebration or condoning of particular behaviors or circumstances, among them homelessness, homosexuality, and drug addiction. It is, rather, an affirmation of the compassion that heals the devastation that those situations can generate. In essence, this is a love story. It speaks more to real hope than to preachy moralizing or superficial happy endings.

And the people who do the speaking here, whether in song or in spoken dialogue, do so with a verve and eloquence that can pierce even the most hardened, intransigent hearts. For starters, director Jon Tisevich has set the performing bar very high by virtue of his own Broadway performance history with the musical. Here, he reprises his role of Roger, the brooding and reclusive guitarist/songwriter, infected with HIV and struggling to finish composing just one more great song. Tisevich is a soaring, distinctly professional presence on stage, and in fact a blessing on the proceedings. While his astonishing musicality and dramatic skills are powerful, they’re never so overpowering that they upstage the rest of the cast. Rather, those skills seem to have inspired his fellow cast members to reach deep inside and deliver thoroughly riveting performances on their own terms.

Justin Williams plays Mark, a filmmaker and Roger’s roommate. He narrates much of the action with a fascinating mix of wry and melancholic humor. His singing and dancing duet with Tiffany Stoker in “Tango Maureen” is a gem of bittersweet hilarity. To her role of Joanne, Stoker brings notable wit and swagger, as does Samantha Crowe in her role of Maureen (Joanne’s lover), an alternately ditzy and defiant performance artist. Daryl Robinson is convincing as he struggles to reconcile with his estranged friends in the East Village artist community where he is now their landlord. Joshua Baum plays Angel, a cross-dressing drummer, not as flamboyantly as his costumes would seem to warrant, but rather with an endearing and confident gentleness. Jennifer Hayek’s portrayal of Mimi, a sassy exotic dancer with a serious drug habit, is searing and poignant, particularly as she sings the haunting “Without You.” And one of the production’s most emotionally commanding moments comes when Christopher Gales, in his excellent portrayal of Tom Collins, a former academic, mourns Angel’s death in a thunderous, heartrending reprise of the song “I’ll Cover You.”

Kudos to the five-member band, too. Steve Parsons (conductor/piano/keyboards), Erin Vaughn (guitar), Brent Schloneger (keyboards/guitar), John Chambers (bass), and Patrick Wagner (drums/percussion) make a marvelous noise indeed, rich with textures both silky and coarse.

For the moment, let’s set aside the understandable anxiety that can accompany how some (perhaps many?) of us might view “uncomfortable” theatrical literature. As this story unfolds, its more lurid (though never gratuitous) content is clearly outweighed by the timely urgency of its message: the possibility of healing through unconditional love. It starts with how we treat each other. Primum non nocere.

In our culture that seems to value increasingly selfish, insipid and otherwise escapist forms of entertainment, “Rent” is a communal act of faith and courage, presented here with electrifying passion. As such, it resonates long after the applause has faded and the house gone dark. It asks us all, I think, to seriously own our accountability to others. It asks us all to consider ourselves not as passive members of an entertained audience, but rather as active messengers of hope far beyond the stage.

Bravo, Players Guild, for asking the tough questions.

Photo: The cast of “Rent,” at the Players Guild Theatre, 1001 Market Ave. N, Canton, through September 27. Box office: (330) 453- 7617 /


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