Wanna strike a blow on behalf of scandalous, degenerate fornication?
How about one against the self-righteous sniffers-out-of-artistic-sin?
Either would be a good enough reason to get a ticket to the Lake City Playhouse production of “Rent” in January.
I say this not as a drama critic. I’ve seen “Rent,” and it was fine, but you’d have to go to someone other than me to find a true appreciation for musical theater. But I’m wholeheartedly behind this production of “Rent” – scheduled for a dozen or so performances in January, at 1320 E. Garden in Coeur d’Alene, for $19, unless you’re a kid or a senior – as a means of being wholeheartedly against those who have come out against it.
It’s always discouraging when the guardians of morality go after art, whether it’s blocking “The Vagina Monologues” at Gonzaga or campaigning against “Huckleberry Finn” or protesting statues of Ganesh. Now Coeur d’Alene and its 50-year-old community theater is in the midst of a ridiculous dustup over “Rent,” the musical that dramatizes the lives of down-and-out artists and their struggles, including homeless characters, drug users, and gays and lesbians in the early days of the AIDS epidemic.
Guess which part of that got the art police riled up?
It all started with a letter to the editor of the Coeur d’Alene Press on Dec. 7. The letter was rigorous in its adherence to the rules of crankdom: It opens with the misapplied cliche quote from Edmund Burke about evil prevailing when good men do nothing; goes on to define “Rent” as a “degenerate musical” about the “fornicating interactions” of gays and lesbians; suggests that God might withhold his “benediction” from the wholesome Lake City if this play proceeds; and finally offers up the email address of the theater’s executive artistic director, George Green, so people could send him messages and let him know he was going to burn in hell.
Which some people have done.
I wish it didn’t need to be said, but here goes: “Rent” is not “about” fornication. It’s not “about” homosexuality. It’s about human beings and their trials. It tries to do what good art does: create empathy, draw viewers out of themselves, provoke emotional and intellectual reaction. It’s the constructive, valuable opposite of running around giving everyone a self-righteous thumbs-up or thumbs-down.
But even if it wasn’t, one of the great things about America, of course, is we can go to hell if we want to. Whenever people start gas-bagging starchily about “fornication” – a word that’s only useful for hurling at others – you can be sure they’ve forgotten that.
Besides the small-minded bigotry of it, opposition to “Rent” seems to grow from a serious cultural disconnect. The play is practically “Oklahoma” at this point. It opened off-Broadway in 1996, and later moved onto Broadway proper, where it ran for 12 years. It was made into a movie in 2005. It won a Pulitzer Prize and a Tony award.
The controversy has taken Troy Nickerson, the play’s director, by surprise. After all, it’s played Spokane twice.
“When George Green asked me to direct the show, he said there may be some controversy, and I said, ‘Really? I kind of doubt it,’ ” Nickerson said.
The appearance of the letter, written by Arcadia Nicklay, prompted a lot of comments on the Press’ website, many of which, it will not surprise you to learn, are inane or stupidly mean-spirited. Green said he has received several emails from people objecting to the show, including some he says are full of hate – declaring gay people “degenerates” and the like.
“My statement is pretty clear,” he said. “We’re a theater organization. We’re putting on a production and all too often patrons have a misled idea that an organization that is putting on a production is either promoting or celebrating what’s on stage. … As artists, we just want you to think about what’s on stage.”
Green and Nickerson both say that they’ve received a lot of support, as well, which is heartening. It’s the only way a community can let those with marginal ideas know that they’re in the margins. That they’re offstage. That the truly degenerate among us are those who seek to falsely and narrowly define what is art, what is acceptable, what is human.
Nickerson has a good, if rather obvious, idea for critics: “If you don’t want to see it, please don’t come.”
If, on the other hand, you don’t want to let the critics decide for you – please do.
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