Remember Area Stage? Miami critics fawned all over this little theater company on Lincoln Road until it closed in 1999. They recently reopened in Coral Gables, complete with a conservatory for young actors. This weekend, they stage Jonathan Larson's Rent. The famed musical is a portrait of the artist in New York City in the 1980s. It brings the Village and Lower East Side to life. This is back when these neighborhoods were still frontiers for the avant-garde and not filled with Starbucks and Gaps. At this point, "artist loft" wasn't yet a clever term maneuvered by real estate agents. It was the roach-infested, bathtub-in-your-kitchen home of '90s NYC bohemians like in Rent. What's more, the musical takes place at the height of the AIDS epidemic, a time when HIV-positive meant certain death. Artists watched as friends and lovers were silently consumed. And whenever high school students put on Rent, a production mired in adult themes, it always stirs up some controversy. Director John Rodaz elected to use the modified school version, which omits some of the language and displays of affection, and doesn't include the song "Contact." Still, he wasn't naïve enough to believe that a cast of teenagers wouldn't be able to tackle the musical's themes of poverty, drug addiction, and AIDS. "I was surprised by how much they knew. They taught me actually," he laughs. "The community of artists that are represented in the play has caused us to ask questions and explore our own lives in very different ways. It's been an almost therapeutic experience." And so it is that Area Stage once more goes about its business of pushing the envelope and grooming home-grown talent. "I find [the current theater scene] so exciting," says Maria Banda-Rodaz as her husband directs Rent rehearsals in the background. "I'm so happy to be part of this community. I'm hopeful. Very hopeful for Miami."
Fri., Aug. 6, 8 p.m., 2010