A few minutes before Rent Boy Ave. started, a disheveled, obviously drunk woman stumbled in though a side door with two plastic cups of liquid slopping out of her hands. “That’s called sauvignon blanc,” she slurred and handed them to a man sitting in the front row. She then worked her way around the audience, asking for money and promising to bring us something from the concession stand if we just gave her a dollar. She was joined by another panhandler, and the two of them proceeded to harass the audience until suddenly the lights went dark, and they (joined by others) began to sing.
Rent Boy Ave. is a lot of things. It’s a musical, for one. It’s a meditation on cliches and fairy tales and how they play out in everyday life. It’s a story about homeless teens. It’s a love story. It’s the most intensely uncomfortable experience I’ve had in a theatre in a long time. And it was also really good.
Rent Boy Ave. follows several homeless teens as they find ways to feed themselves. They visit soup kitchens, they panhandle, they sell drugs and their bodies. Mark is a veteran of the streets, a seventeen-year-old rent boy who’s convinced he only sleeps with men because they pay more than women, and is concerned that he’s losing his business to “ten to twelve year olds who will give it up for a candy bar.” Jackie, also a veteran hooker, was a high-school valedictorian and homecoming queen before she ran away from home in the wake of a back-alley abortion, and spends the play struggling with her pimp over money and drugs. David is the new boy on the street, who goes from wide-eyed innocent to self-satisfied drug dealer over the course of the show. Paying close attention are three adults: a compassionate nun who was once an addict herself, a collected, rhyming pimp, and an abusive john who would love to get his hands on David.
And the audience too is a character, pulled into the drama whether they like it or not. Early in the second act, Trashcan Sally, the woman who panhandled the audience before the show started, confronted an audience member. “Hey, I know you. You’re the guy who payed $25 to come in here and see what you could watch right outside for free.” And it’s true–the Boxcar Stage is at 6th St. and Howard, in the sketchier part of Soma. (However, she had to say it to him in the third row, where all the audience members who started out in the front row had escaped to over intermission.) The black box space had seating on three sides, including “scaffolding seating,” cushions set on top of scaffolds that the actors frequently climbed and lept over (this is were my friends and I sat. It was billed as putting us into the action, but ironically it kept us safer from being confronted by the cast than the people in the standard seating.
We had a few technical complaints about the show. Although we loved the singing, staging, choreography and acting, the lighting design was pretty terrible, and the singers had to be miked too high to compete with the volume of the band, especially in a concrete space. But I strongly recommend it to anyone in the Bay Area at the moment, and may wind up seeing it again.
Rent Boy Ave. is showing at the Boxcar Stage, 505 Natoma St, San Francisco. It runs through August 22.