The cavernous post-industrial theater of Seacoast Rep is stupendously well-suited for the staging of Rent, the Pulitzer Prize-winning musical in which young MTV-era bohemians live in shitty city apartments and sometimes the streets of New York City. Set designer David Towlun has stripped the back wall of the stage to reveal its aging brick, crumbling concrete, and steel beams, and no crafted backdrop could more beautifully evoke the young artists' stark urban settings. The La Bohème of the '90s receives a masterful production here, under the direction of Brian Swasey and William Asher: Voices are jaw-dropping, the live music is A+, and the energy and emotion of the cast are boundless.
We meet their characters on Christmas Eve in the old Lower East Side, then a haven for junkies and HIV as much as for anti-establishment artists. It is a hard-scrabble place but also a sensually rich one, and Towlun captures this sharply in his set. To the natural bare-bones beauties of the theater, he adds a suspended, precarious-looking amalgam of city stuff — hubcap, bicycle, shopping cart — as well as industrial steel tables, platforms, a spiral staircase, trapdoor grates in the stage floor.
Ranging widely over these tabletops and catwalks, Swasey's actors are arresting from the get-go, a breathlessly paced sequence in which our protagonist, an independent filmmaker and compulsive documentarian Mark (Graham Bailey) aims his camera around his home, a heatless former music-publishing house on 11th Street and Avenue B, and narrates: Here, the wood-burning trash can; here, the answering machine recording a call from Mark's mom in Scranton; here, tuning a guitar in a Ramones T-shirt and red plaid pajama bottoms, his roommate Roger (Knate Higgins), who (we hear in Mark's aside) recently lost his girlfriend when she left a note that read "We have AIDS" and then slit her wrists in the bathroom.
Managed by lighting designer Matt Guminski, the dynamic balance of dark and light is a hallmark of this show throughout the play's many sub-plots. Some of these concern Mark and Roger's former roommate Benny (Terrence Oliver), now their landlord, who is the object of much ire and ridicule for going back on a promise of rent-free living, and for seeking to develop a vacant lot inhabited by lots of street folks. Mark's bisexual performance-artist ex-girlfriend Maureen (Christine M. Dulong) protests with a spoken word performance riffing on "Hey Diddle Diddle," a routine at once laughable and sharp.
There is also much in the way of romantic trial and triumph. The more-than-capable tango that Mark performs in commiseration with Maureen's maligned new girlfriend Joanne (Babs Rubenstein, with monumental voice) is funny, perfectly timed, and formidably witty. The romance that Roger reluctantly takes up with the lithe and naughty S&M dancer Mimi (Natasha Ashworth, deliciously and with great range), who is also HIV-positive, is by turns sexy, poignant, and harrowing. Another romance, between gay anarchist professor Tom Collins (Scottie McLaughlin) and cross-dressing percussionist Angel (the scintillating, gamine Albert Jennings), both of whom have HIV, ranges between tender and fabulously playful. And trust me on this one: It's worth the price of admission just to see Jennings's elf-like, grinning Angel spring on and off tables in Mrs. Claus drag and black vinyl go-go boots, spanking the steel with drumsticks.