Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, October 2005
Since its wildly successful off-Broadway run in 1998 and equally successful film version, both starring author John Cameron Mitchell, Hedwig and the Angry Inch has become a cult classic. People find it life-changing and the score and lyrics by Stephen Trask is venerated. Since Trask and Mitchell have immortalized not only their performances (Trask’s band Cheater appeared on stage and film as Hedwig’s back-up band The Angry Inch) but their creative process on film, the danger for any theatre staging the show is that they will look like, and be considered “imposters.” Unlike most musicals which are created by a large team of producers, directors, designers, actors, and writers, Hedwig was all about Mitchell and Trask, and they have left enormous stilettos and wigs to fill.
The current production of Hedwig at the Arts Center of the Capital Region, is a labor of love for Martin S. Goeller, Leah Hennessey, and Gregory Anderson. Goeller and Hennessey front Sixtus Pictures and Anderson runs Three Dollar Bill Productsions, an affiliate organization of the Capital District Gay and Lesbian Community Council. They have combined forces to bring this edgy and important show to Troy. I say important because “Hedwig” is not a show that a “legit” theatre company, with a board and a donor base to answer to, would dare to present, and yet it is a show that speaks directly to a vital and underserved theatre audience – teenagers.
To reduce Hedwig to its simplest elements, it is a one-person show with a band. The actor playing Hedwig alternately sings and delivers what is essentially a stand-up routine detailing the character’s life and career.
Hedwig (nee Hansel) was born and raised by a single mother in East Germany, behind the Berlin Wall. Seduced by an American GI, Hansel is convinced to have a sex change operation and take his mother’s name Hedwig in order to legally marry his GI lover and emigrate to America. The sex change operation is botched, leaving Hedwig with only a one-inch mound of flesh in his/her crotch, and, a year later, Hedwig finds him/herself divorced and penniless in a trailer park in Junction City, Kansas. While babysitting for a local military family, Hedwig becomes lover, mentor, and muse to the teenage son Tommy, who s/he helps rise to mega-stardom as the rocker Tommy Gnosis. When Tommy, too, abandons Hedwig, s/he becomes a rock bottom rocker, playing sordid gigs with his/her band, The Angry Inch, and his/her “husband” Yitzhak, a role played by a woman. This is where we meet Hedwig, on stage with Yitzhak and the band playing a local dive while across the river, Tommy Gnosis is performing to a sold out crowd at the Pepsi Arena.
This plot synopsis undoubtedly sounds unappealing, but let me assure you that the physically repugnant and painful aspects of Hedwig’s story are dealt with as humanely as possible, and that the show is very, very funny. On a deeper level, this is actually a show with a profound central theme exploring how our sense of identity is hopeless tangled within our warring intellectual, physical/sexual, and spiritual selves. What makes you, you? Is it what you look like, including your apparent gender? Or the work you do? Or the art you create? Do we determine our own fate or does a higher power control our destiny?
There is a lot of very deep philosophy bundled into Mitchell’s script and Trask’s lyrics. The song The Origin of Love is based on and inspired by Plato’s Symposium and contains references to gods of the Greek and Egyptian pantheons. The Genesis story of Eve being physically “ripped” from Adam’s flesh is explored, along with the Judeo/Christian concept that sex/love/marriage renders the two sexes “one flesh” joined together by God. Hedwig christens her rock-star protégé “Tommy Gnosis” (he was born Tommy Speck) – gnosis being the Greek word of knowledge and a word seldom heard out side of seminary walls – although it is Hedwig, not Tommy, to whom knowledge is revealed.
Goeller, a German by birth, plays Hedwig as a gentle and wounded soul. He makes a very attractive woman, and I did not realize until he was stripped of his drag at the end of the show how fully I had accepted his femininity. I was literally surprised to see that he was, indeed, male. Not that I had been fooled into thinking that he was female, that is not what this show is all about, but I was completely ready to accept Goeller’s Hedwig as a distinct human being with his/her own unique gender identity.
Hennessey plays the hostile and repressed Yitzhak with silent fury. Again, she created a character who I was ready to accept on her/his own gender terms. I knew that Hennessey was a woman, but I was truly confused about Yitzhak. Hedwig’s other lovers had been clearly male, and s/he refers toYitzhak as his/her “husband,” but since it isn’t clear whether Hedwig identifies him/herself as any one gender, is there any need for his/her spouse to do so?
Backing Goeller and Hennessey are Adrian Cohen, keyboards; Alex Caminiti, guitar; Chris Jordan, bass; and Jamie T. Verner, drums; led by Musical Director Adam Jones on synthesizer.
Now here comes by big, big problem with this production, which is otherwise strong and compelling. And I am willing to attribute some of my troubles to the fact that I am a boring middle-aged haus-frau, but I couldn’t hear/understand most of the lyrics. I am not an expert on “glam-punk-rock” and it is completely possible that it is supposed to sound like that, but in this case I wish it didn’t because these are lyrics that matter in a context where they need to be heard. Surely, in this technologically sophisticated day and age it is possible to tone down the musicians and amplify the lead singer in a way that would allow for the general cacophony of the musical style without losing the lyrics.
It is generally my habit to research a show before seeing/reviewing it, and that includes listening to the original cast recording, if there is one. But I decided to go to this production as a Hedwig virgin in order to be surprised and delighted by this show that so many people claim has profoundly changed their lives. I neither listened to the CD nor watched the movie, because I didn’t want my opinion of Goeller’s performance polluted by Mitchell’s definitive version. But when I encountered this problem with the lyrics I thought, “Damn! If only I had listened to the CD before I came!” So I highly recommend that you listen to the original cast recording or the film soundtrack with the lyrics in hand (I don’t know about the soundtrack recording, but the lyrics are included in the original cast CD) before attending this production. You will enjoy it much more, I promise.
Earlier I mentioned how very important this show is to teenagers. I have living proof of that in my own house as my younger son and his friends went through a period at around 14 when they could not get enough of Hedwig, Rocky Horror, and other gender-bending shows. Getting together for costumed lip-synch parties was all the rage. At an age when one’s body is turning into God knows what and hormones are raging and worries about shouldering adult roles and responsibilities run rampant, it is vital that kids see and hear and think about different ways of being human. One way to find out who you are is to find out who you are not.
But it is not just teenagers who can learn from Hedwig. Who among us is really comfortable in his or her body? Who hasn’t had loves lost and dreams smashed? As we age and as the world around us changes, we all have to find ways to cope and reinvent ourselves or we will perish. Listening to Hedwig’s tale of triumph over amazing adversity is a powerful and highly entertaining experience.
The program assures us that this Capital Region premiere of Hedwig is a local production in every way, with local artists involved in all aspects of design and publicity for the show. It looks great, especially Goeller’s amazing uncredited costumes, and wigs/hair and make-up by Erin Pihlaja. There is a distinctive Hedwig “look” involving masses of blonde hair styled in an extreme flip that resembles a fatal collision between Farrah Fawcett and the Andrews Sisters. Just when you think Goeller couldn’t possibly balance another ounce of fake hair on his head, another mass of blonde tresses is attached at the climax of the first act, when Hedwig is revealed at his/her feminine best.
I hope that the sound levels can be balanced better, and that word of mouth spreads that Hedwig is indeed alive and well and appearing weekends through November 20 on Monument Square in Troy.
Hedwig and the Angry Inch runs weekends through November 20 at Arts Center of the Capital Region on River Street in Troy, NY. The show runs an hour and forty-five minutes with one intermission. You are the best judge of what is right for your family, but I know for a fact that kids 13 and up will just love "Hedwig." Visit the show's Web site for tickets and information.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2005