This ‘Rent’ production will be the trashiest show in town
by mike thomas Staff Reporterfirstname.lastname@example.org November 16, 2011 6:56PM
Michael Lasswell of Roosevelt University decorates an old patio umbrella filling in for a Christmas tree and adorned with prescription bottle and syringes. | Jean Lachat~Sun-Times photos
◆ Through Sunday
◆ Roosevelt University O’Malley Theatre,
431 S. Wabash
◆ (312) 341-3831
Updated: December 18, 2011 5:19PM
Michael Lasswell is a Dumpster slut.
That’s what his friends in New York dubbed him, anyway. As a longtime resident of that town, Lasswell frequently poked around for interesting refuse and made something artfully useful of it for low-budget stage productions.
“It was never really appreciated until now,” the Roosevelt University assistant professor and resident set designer said wryly while standing near his newest creation.
Constructed almost entirely from repurposed and recycled items, Lasswell’s set for Roosevelt’s Theatre Conservatory production of “Rent,” which opens Thursday, was months in the gathering and weeks in the making. It will be struck, however, in only four days; the final performance is Sunday.
“Rent,” Jonathan Larson’s Tony- and Pulitzer-winning rock musical, is the tale of artists from New York’s Lower East Side who struggle to live and work as their ranks are ravaged by HIV/AIDS.
Lasswell, who used to volunteer at AIDS organizations in the Alphabet City neighborhood of East Greenwich Village, knew many such people. Consequently, he said, this particular undertaking is more personal.
His vision came to fruition with the help of director Ray Frewen, lighting designer Aimee Hanyzewski and much loving labor from student volunteers. This week, a handful of them were putting the final touches on their handiwork prior to that night’s dress rehearsal.
Lasswell himself gathered 75 percent of the nearly 1,000 two-liter plastic soda bottles that are used to impressive effect as a light-reflecting backdrop. The rest came from students, faculty members and others. The building’s security guards, Lasswell estimated, chipped in roughly 100.
“We were going to take the labels off,” he said, “but then we did a light test and it’s so much more edgy and grungy. The running gag among the crew was, every time we started to do something too slick they would say, ‘No, now we gotta put some stank on it.’ ”
Indeed, aside from clear Plexiglas stage panels that were purchased new, stank abounds. Other stankified items include old metal school desk legs, misshapen pieces of colored plastic used to make a stained glass-like mosaic pattern, battered and paint-spattered floor boards and a steel spiral staircase originally procured from Craiglist.
An old patio umbrella is adorned to look like a Christmas tree, and among its ornaments are crushed aluminum cans, plastic syringes (unused ones courtesy of Lasswell, who takes B-12 shots) and prescription bottles. The label on one reads “Doxycycline Hyclate,”which slows the growth of bacteria and combats the effects of anthrax exposure. Good to know. There’s also a tiny AIDS-ribbon-wearing angel, a gift from the play’s “drag consultant,” Angelique Munro.
According to Lasswell, going the used route cut costs tremendously. It’s good for the Earth as well.
“There’s so much waste in theater,” Lasswell said. “All kinds of shows in town close up, and they pull up a Dumpster and throw it all out. So I thought it was more ethical to use the waste instead of just creating waste.”
The attention-grabbing soda bottles, hung in rows behind the balcony bandstand, were painstakingly drilled, strung with fishing wire and glued in place. Lasswell gathered scores of them while poking around for cool-looking castoffs in Evanston alleys, near his home, well after dark. Wearing a long black overcoat, he’d sling a sack over his shoulder and set out with his border terrier Smokey. The dog, he said, “gave me some respectability.”
Still, a few neighbors grew wary — or at least curious. At one point a cop even pulled up and politely asked what Lasswell was doing. When he explained his intent and assured the officer he hadn’t ditched anything illegal in the process, he was allowed to go about his business. Locals, it seems, had complained of their prescriptions being ripped off, and the lawman was just being cautious.
Although Lasswell is no thief, circumstantial evidence might have gotten him busted. Upon returning home, he discovered several prescription bottles at the bottom of his sack.
“It’s only by the grace of God I’m not in jail right now,” he half-joked.
Because his husband is “completely germ-phobic,” Lasswell said he was required to “leave my clothes at the door and go straight to the shower” when he returned from scrounge sessions. “The dog was allowed to come in unwashed, but I had to immediately clean up.”
And then, when he was “feeling the absolute lowest, the most sorry for myself,” Lasswell stumbled onto a bit of karmic justice in the form of French Champagne — two unopened cases. Very drinkable, too.
“Those bottles,” he said, “you will not see on set.”