By ALAN SMASON, WYES-TV Theatre Critic (“Steppin’ Out“)
For the past three weeks Rainbow Carnage Productions has been presenting Hedwig and the Angry Inch on the stage at Café Istanbul. With a simple, but effective set and direction by Kimberly Kaye, this is the third professional production of the John Cameron Mitchell and Stephen Trask opus and is probably the best directed of all previous iterations.
Kaye, who additionally plays the role of Yizhak, was inspired to take on the project due to her close friendship with two-time Tony Award winner and New Orleanian by choice, Michael Cerveris. Cerveris, who played the role more than 500 times on stage in London, New York and elsewhere, serves as the creative consultant for this production, bringing it a single degree close to the creators of this odd rock musical developed in nightclubs prior to reaching a theater.
Heading up the cast in the titular role is Edward Carter Simon, who pours into the character all of the emotional upheaval one would expect for an East German boy who undergoes a botched sex change operation as a means to escape the Communist bloc. Simon describes in excruciating detail how Hedwig’s mother encourages her son Hansel Schmidt to make a sacrifice.
The sacrifice Hedwig must make is to be passed off as a woman in order to realize a new life with an American soldier, who wants to help “the girly boy” break free from behind the Iron Curtain. It is the doctor’s ineptitude in the surgical theater that leaves Hedwig with but an “angry inch” of flesh that must be endured and which, ultimately, ends up leaving her unrealized as either a woman or a man. Hedwig is the epitome of a non-binary, a term which today has come to mean a person who does not identify either as male or female, but possesses aspects of both. (Pronouns for Hedwig henceforth reflect this.)
Meanwhile, the Berlin Wall falls and Hedwig is in America recovering from surgery in a Kansas trailer park as their arranged marriage falls apart. The pain and angst of dealing with a loss of sexual identity, national identity and a marital partner comes rushing headlong and plunges them deep into a depression.
Hedwig’s outlet towards dealing with all of this gut-wrenching emotion is through music. It is their music that lifts them up and allows them, temporarily, to heal. A new love interest leads to romance and a period of artistic blooming as they find in a new protege a raison d’etre. The artist being groomed by Hedwig is renamed Tommy Gnosis for the Greek word for knowledge. The songs written during this period of rebirth are ultimately stolen by the protege and claimed as his own, catapulting him into stardom following an incident in which he crashes his car into a school bus while high on drugs and being serviced by Hedwig’s oral advances.
Simon plays the role of the conflicted genderqueer to absolute perfection. Part of their persona is to play the martyr and victim of the men who abandon them. Another part is to assume a mean-spirited sadist who enjoys inflicting mental torment as much as they complain about their own tormentors.
An electric bass playing drag queen from the recently broken-up Yugoslavia, Yitzhak, comes to Hedwig’s aid, pledging devotion to the leader of a small ensemble of other players on piano, guitar and drums. As Yitzhak, Kaye snarls and puts down Hedwig on stage. Yitzhak is most upset because his romance with Hedwig is based on a solemn promise extracted by the lead singer in which the bass player is no longer allowed to wear a wig or dress in drag.
Kaye has the difficult task of showing Yitzhak’s devotion, but also expressing a loathing for his being repressed by Hedwig in the ability to be artistic in his/her own right. The role of Yitzhak has always been played by a woman and Kaye does channel her machismo into the role brilliantly. In fact, they are quite like the yin-yang of sexual expression. Hedwig is outwardly an androgynous female, while Yitzhak is outwardly an androgynous male. As it turns out, the two complement each other in ways even they do not suspect.
The fire in Hedwig’s character comes to life through the expressive rock anthems and ballads they sing. Songs like “The Origins of Love,” “Wig in a Box,” “Exquisite Corpse” and “Midnight Radio” penned by Trask effectively accompany the story by bookwriter Mitchell and advance the plot towards a conclusion in which Hedwig lets go of the self-loathing and self-pity. The denouement involves Hedwig realizing acceptance of their fate and others.
Backing up singers Simon and Kaye are Ainsley Matich as Skszp, the keyboard player and group’s musical director. Christopher “The Gizz” Guzardi is a masterful rock drummer acccompanied by Jimmy Williams (Jacek) and Sergio Gonzales Pagan (Krzyzhtoff) on guitars. The sound of the group is evocative of the glam rock of the late 1970s along with elements of punk and hard rock.
Wigs by Brooklyn Shafer and costumes designs by Dana Embree are noteworthy along with truly wonderful work on lighting design by Scott Sauber and sound design by Clare Marie Nemanich.
This Hedwig and the Angry Inch compares favorably with the successful Broadway production that played at the Belasco Theatre and starred Neil Patrick Harris in the title role and Lena Hall as Yitzhak in 2014. Even though Harris and Hall won Tony Awards for their respective performances, that production took some liberties and added a subplot about a musical rendition of “The Hurt Locker,” which this production thankfully does not include.
For its racy, adult and controversial subject matter, Hedwig and the Angry Inch is not for everyone. But for those that have open minds and who are able to be transported by especially gifted performances both from both actors and musical performers, this show will leave most people pleased they took the time out to enjoy the ride.
Hedwig and the Angry Inch transfers to the Happyland Theater this weekend with performances scheduled at 8:00 p.m. on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, September 28 – 30 at 3126 Burgundy Street in the Bywater. For tickets ($27 each), click here.