Penned by actor John Cameron Mitchell
with music and lyrics by Stephen Trask, the show tells the story of
glam-rock star wanna-be Hedwig, raised in East Berlin as Hansel, the
gay son of an absent American Army officer and an East German woman.
When an eager GI offers to marry Hansel and take him to the States, he
is forced into a quickie sex change operation that gets botched, which
leaves the newly renamed Hedwig with mutilated genitalia represented by
what she calls her angry inch. Soon abandoned by her soldier hubby in a
trailer park in Kansas, Hedwig relies on turning tricks and babysitting
to make ends meet while pursuing a dream of rock stardom. Now as the
“internationally ignored” rock diva, Hedwig plays dates in sleazy bars
near the stadium venues of mega-star Tommy Gnosis, who was once her
Drag city: Aaron Berk (pictured here in the 2004 Syracuse Stage production) shows his patriotism in Hedwig and the Angry Inch, the season finale at Ithaca’s Hangar Theatre. MICHAEL DAVIS PHOTO
Laced with heavy doses of philosophy, Hedwig and the Angry Inch
is more than an in-your-face exploration of sexuality. Hedwig’s
viewpoint, illustrated in the song “The Origins of Love,” expands on
the platonic concept that humans were once physically joined as pairs,
until the gods, threatened by the potential power of the two-headed
four-legged creatures, split them apart and scattered them. Hedwig has
spent her life searching for her other half. As the likely candidate,
she is stuck on her rock star ex, whom she brought along at the
beginning of his career, writing his songs and even changing his name
from the more mundane Tommy Speck to Gnosis, the Greek word for
Flanked onstage by her band, The Angry
Inch, and Yitzhak, her present husband, Hedwig bares her soul in an
impassioned extended monologue punctuated by driving rock, power
anthems and wistful ballads. Sideman Yitzhak, a one-time female
impersonator billed as Krystal Nacht, the last Jewess of the Balkans,
bears the brunt of Hedwig’s rage as she yearns for some acknowledgment
from Gnosis, who is performing to an enthusiastic crowd just on the
other side of the stage door.
As interpreted by Hedwig’s tight onstage
band, here impersonated by musicians Dillon Kondor, Josh Oxford, Steve
Reichlen and Ben Reynolds, Trask’s music is anchored in the glam
rock/punk tradition popularized by David Bowie, Lou Reed and Iggy Pop.
Yet the score easily crosses genres as Hedwig croons soulful
The role of Hedwig, conceived as a tour
de force, requires a cyclonic performance, and Aaron Berk delivers that
in spades, taking us on a journey that moves from raucously comic to
deeply moving, never betraying the humanity behind the outrageous
wounded transsexual. Berk reaches poetic heights in the final mystical
moments of the show.
As the loyal Yitzhak, S.J. Pickett turns
in bravura work. When Yitzhak moves to center stage, the effect is
mesmerizing, deepening the mysteries of sexuality and gender roles that
the show famously explores.
Director Michael Donald Edwards, who staged Hedwig
with Berk and Pickett at Syracuse Stage in 2004, keeps the emotional
electricity flowing at high voltage for the entire intermission-less
performance. The set design by David L. Meyer handily exploits the
seediness of Hedwig’s current venue, while screen projections that
illustrate and comment on Hedwig’s situation provide poetic commentary
on Hedwig’s very human condition.
Using the Berlin Wall as a symbol for
the barriers between human beings, the musical exposes the confusion
and epiphanies that result when that wall suddenly comes tumbling down.
Both exhilarating and heartbreaking, Hedwig and the Angry Inch is a relentlessly entertaining piece of theater, proceeding as fearlessly as its unconventional heroine.
This production runs through Aug. 30. See Times Table for information.