Argus Eyes Presents Rent at St. Peter’s University
Being surrounded by artists and people from all across the ethnic rainbow, dealing with the harsh realities of city life, expressing feelings in song–it sounds almost like a typical day in Jersey City, but it’s actually what audiences will find in the Argus Eyes production of the classic Broadway musical Rent.
Director Alex Perez, a local theater professional who is also the artistic director of the musical theater program at High Tech High School in North Bergen, says the Jonathan Larson musical is a perfect fit for the Argus Eyes Drama Society, the resident student theater group at St. Peter’s University (SPU).
For those unfamiliar with the rock opera, the tale is set in the late 80s or early 90s in New York City’s Lower East Side. People are dying of HIV/AIDS, crime and poverty are on the rise, and modern bohemian artists are slaving away at their art in dirty, cramped apartments. It is a world, Perez says, full of both extreme hardships and brilliant creativity.
“We felt that Rent represents the cultural demographic of this area and there are so many wonderful topics that the show addresses that are very important to tell on stage,” says Perez. “It deals with acceptance, tolerance, the HIV/AIDS scare of the time…we want to reach out to the community with this story. It’s poignant and really hits home for a lot of people.”
Perez, who previously directed Hairspray and Boeing Boeing for Argus Eyes, says finding the cast’s 16 members was tough but worth the struggle.
“There’s no real college theater program here or anything like that so it was hard to get people to come out and audition and to find the right people to fit the roles,” he says. “But this cast is unbelievable. Everyone has filled their roles nicely…They’re so passionate about it and this group looks like they’ve been together all of their lives.”
The musical stars Mark Kenny (Mark), Chuck LaCorte (Roger), Lisette Santiago (Mimi), Marcus Moton (Collins), Brendan Bartlett (Angel), Amanda DiMauro (Maureen), Charlie Delbridge (Joanne) and Nick Mederos (Benny).
The ensemble includes Mary Zeoli, Courtney Bowen, Giselle Agard, Meghan Ianiro, Matthew Holowienka, Daryl Greene, Garvey Potter and Walter Free.
Working with the group has been a great opportunity to show young artists how theater works, Perez says.
“When working with students, the challenges are more based on the basics of creating theater and producing a show, whether it’s them learning time management, discipline or the process of repetition,” he says. “They’re really resilient, hard-working and committed. They’re willing to take every single note and direction and apply it the best they can. That’s what makes this great–it’s about their process and what they can take from that.”
The students are excited about Perez’s fresh take on the play, which in many productions has been watered down to a hackneyed formula. Perez says this show will focus more on movement and dance as well as have “a couple of new and interesting approaches.”
“The director is really breathing new life and energy into this production,” says Kenny, an SPU freshman playing Mark Cohen.
The cast says they most identify with Rent’s themes of love, loss and second chances and for many, it’s played an important role in their own lives. For example, in a video where the students discuss what the show has meant to them, Bartlett (Angel) says, “When I was younger growing up, I didn’t really have any positive gay role models. I struggled a lot to figure out who I was and Rent really kind of saved my life…just listening to the CD every day coming home from school.
“I’ve been wanting to play the character since I was six years old and I never even thought it was an option,” he says.
LaCorte (Roger) says the show “forces people to come and let go of anything they thought they knew or felt before and come away with a new take on life.”
Delbridge (Joanne) adds that she’s bonded with her fellow students through the production. “We’ve always been a family, to me, but we’re just getting to know each other on such a deeper level,” she says. “It’s hard, but we’re putting our souls into it and our hearts.”
SPU Junior and Argus Eyes President Garvey Potter, who is part of the ensemble, has huge expectations for the show. “I think this has the potential to be the best production of Rent that Hudson County has ever seen,” he says. “Tickets were selling even before we had our first official rehearsal.”
“Rent is very popular and something a lot of people know really well. We’re hoping to really please longtime fans and also bring new life and work into it…the cast is adapting beautifully with that,” says Perez. “They’ve really stepped up to the plate…the audience will have a good time with this.
“Sometimes when you watch a collaborative effort you feel like there’s something lackluster, but this cast feels very, very tight,” he says. “The students really embody the energy and spark needed for these roles. I’m very proud of them.”
Rent opens tomorrow, April 16, and runs every night at 7 pm through Saturday, April 20. There is also a 2 pm matinee on Saturday. The show will be held at SPU’s Roy Irving Theater, located at 2641 Kennedy Blvd. at Montgomery Street. Tickets are $10 and can be bought here; admission is free for SPU students with ID. For more information, see their Facebook event page.
Photos courtesy of Alex Perez