Blurring the lines between life and art: 'Rented Bodies'

By Tatiana Craine

Does life imitate art? Or does art imitate life? Rachel Bernstein, attempts to make life and art one in a production she is directing called “Rented Bodies.” The show is loosely based upon the musical, “Rent.” However, Bernstein has found a way to make the once controversial production fresher and more personal. Bernstein, a Macalester student and the Horace J. Bond Ambassador from Penumbra Theatre Company, chose to take “Rent” and use it as a channel through which to try and illustrate the stereotyping that goes on at Macalester and in the real world. Bernstein mused, “When ‘Rent’ premiered in the early 1990s, these character types were total anomalies. Never before had a Broadway stage housed a story centered on four HIV positive characters and four LGBT characters. Jonathan Larson gave some of their struggles a voice, which at the time was hugely progressive.” Bernstein realized that though these characters were a revolutionary step for the theater, they created essentialist ideas about many different people, which, today is problematic. The portrait “Rent” paints of transgendered individuals (the character Angel) is very different from actual transgendered people, and Bernstein believes when people compare the two, it is like, “equating two things which have very little in common.”

As director of “Rented Bodies,” Bernstein took an unorthodox approach to casting the characters in her production. Instead of holding open auditions, Bernstein merely walked up to people who seemed to fit a part in “Rent” and asked them to participate. Most of the cast members were not close before the experience, but through intensive rehearsals, they began to learn more about each other through raw emotion. Bernstein felt that the cast needed to strengthen the relationships with their characters and each other to make the production truly worthwhile. She played psychiatrist while the cast members divulged a lot of personal feelings about their characters and their lives. Bernstein realized, “I knew we had gotten somewhere when one of the cast said, ‘I have way more in common with this person than I thought.’ AWESOME! Now how does that make you feel?” She helped the cast channel these feelings into their characters to create a greater sense of authenticity within the performance.

The cast of “Rented Bodies” is diverse as the memorable personalities seen in “Rent.” Josh Porte plays Mark, the narrator and filmmaker who documents his friends over the course of the show. Peter Walters plays Roger, an HIV-positive musician who staves off loneliness with an exotic dancer. Earnest Simpkins plays Collins, a teacher with AIDS and anarchist tendencies. Shantee Rosado plays Mimi, a heroin addicted exotic dancer with HIV. Chloe Mirzayi plays Angel, a street musician with AIDS who is the glue that holds the friends together. Eboni Dunbar plays Joanne, a lawyer involved with one of Mark’s exes. In addition to directing, Rachel Bernstein plays Maureen, Mark’s bisexual ex who uses performance art as a means of protest.

Bernstein’s choice to play Maureen seems an interesting if not ideal choice, since Bernstein herself is protesting the status quo of quiet discrimination in the world. Bernstein’s goal with “Rented Bodies” was to use a well-known, and well-loved musical and make it into a “stories-project” that the Macalester community could become more aware of the issues of discrimination on campus. She wanted to put on a show that does more than entertain, Bernstein said, “[“Rented Bodies” is] combating this idea of a phenomenon being a singular representation of different types that we’re really trying to do.”

The performers in “Rented Bodies” have become especially close over the past few weeks of rehearsal. The culmination of their many hours of work will come when they perform in the Weyerhauser Chapel. They will be performing some songs, but Bernstein says, “The musical itself is only a small part of the performance. A lot of the performance will be personal narrative from the cast. The work-shopping we’ve done will be right out there for everyone to see, instead of hidden. I think the stuff we’ve got is quite compelling.”

As a Penumbra Theatre Ambassador, Bernstein tried to uphold their mission to “provide the community with thought-provoking art that ‘illuminates the human condition.'” The production reaches for this goal, and according to cast members-succeeds. Bernstein said, “This production symbolizes the culmination of four years of study around issues of identity and representation.” “Rented Bodies” seems like a fitting closure at Macalester for Bernstein, a senior this year.

“Rented Bodies” will be performed on Tuesday, March 10 at 8pm in Weyerhauser Chapel. Free and open to the public.