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Mt. Hood Community College Theatre presents the popular musical Rent

With 525,600 minutes, how do you measure a year?

Mt. Hood Community College Theatre poses this question in its production of the popular Broadway musical “Rent,” opening Friday.

The Pulitzer Prize and Tony award-winning musical chronicles a group of young artists living in New York City’s East Village and grappling with poverty, AIDS, drugs and sexuality during the late 1980s.

by: OUTLOOK PHOTO: JIM CLARK - 'Rent' features the stories of struggling artists who come together to create community in New York's East Village during the late 1980s.

“As we face challenges in this life, we combat them by creating community,” said Jesse Merz, director. “This musical suggests we should measure our life in love and not in what we earn or wear.”

Written by Jonathan Larson in the early 1990s, “Rent” is based on Giacomo Puccini’s opera “La Boheme.” After playing on Broadway from 1996-2008 — the ninth longest run in the history of Broadway — the play was adapted as a movie in 2005.

Mt. Hood’s “Rent” features a cast of 26 students and adult actors from around the Portland area, several designers, a band of five and numerous backstage technicians.

“The cast really embraces the light of the show,” Merz said. “There’s so much joy, so much heart. It’s very optimistic — you just have to crawl through challenges along the way.”

Elizabeth Sanchez, a second-year funeral student at Mt. Hood, portrays Maureen Johnson, the rambunctious lesbian performance artist with a diva streak.

“The show is a reminder to be proud of who we are and what we contribute to this life we were given,” Sanchez said. “Why not be caring and accepting of your neighbor? At the end of the day, we are all humans just trying to make it.”

by: OUTLOOK PHOTO: JIM CLARK - Angel, played by Peter Molof, befriends and becomes romantically involved with Tom Collins, played by Jeremy Wray. 'Seasons of Love' is a song in tribute to Angel.

Also in the cast is Peter Molof, a Portland State University student and community activist. Molof has returned to theater after thinking three years ago his acting career was over.

“I became really involved in social justice activism and wasn’t sure how to reconcile those two things,” Molof said. “The message I’ve internalized from ‘Rent’ is that I have a different relationship with acting, but I don’t have to let go.”

Molof’s character, Angel Dumott Schunard, is a gay drag queen and percussionist who battles AIDS.

“Angel is a vibrant character, but also a person who has confronted unsafe situations and times at which he had to reconcile his identity with what was going on in the world,” Molof said.

Similarly, after transitioning from female to male three years ago, Molof has grappled with issues of identity and how the world perceives him.

“A lot of folks have the attitude of ‘Why would you go through the trouble of transitioning medically, physically, surgically and all these things if you’re just going to play a character who identifies femininely?’” Molof said. “To me, gender presentation is not gender identity.

“I was at first concerned about the pronouns and how I would feel, but I think that I’ve been able to separate from the character and engage with the parts we may have in common. I’m at a point in my life where I feel good about it.”

Despite the challenges characters in “Rent” face, they create a community of compassion, support and love.

“This generation of young people have very beautiful hearts and care for each other,” Merz said. “Sometimes we see people dressed a little bit differently — people with different sexual orientations and people who battle diseases. It’s my hope our audience walks away realizing they’re all people, they all have kind souls and they’re all worthy to get to know.”

Containing mature subject matters such as AIDS, drugs and sexual themes, “Rent” is recommended for audience members 13 and older.

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