Hedwig and the Angry Inch
For the majority of us, some of life’s most fundamental questions are met with simple, either/or answers. Questions like "Who are you?" or "Where are you from?" barely stir a brain cell, as we mindlessly recount the skeletons of our life story.
For others, this is not the case, and life is far more complicated than any dichotomies can allow. Hedwig, the titular role of John Cameron Mitchell and Stephen Trask’s rock musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch, is one of those others. Her story, acted brilliantly by Nick Garrison, forms the brash yet vulnerable backbone of the American Theater Company’s current production, presented in association with About Face Theatre at the ATC’s intimate, 134-seat converted warehouse theater space.
ATC was founded in 1985 with the mission of producing theatrical work that addresses the question "What does it mean to be American?" The story of Hedwig, told through the vehicle of an extended monologue-meets-rock-concert, could not be a more appropriate embodiment of that mission.
Hedwig is an East German born as Hansel who "leaves some of himself behind" to move to the United States with a sugar daddy. Left with an "angry inch" - what her penis used to be and vagina never was - Hedwig struggles with personal identity as her rock n’ roll protegee (Tommy Gnosis) reaches stardom on the coattails of songs Hedwig herself wrote.
The cacophony of identities and insecurities central to Hedwig, in addition to the physical endurance required for her spastic and unpredictable on-stage antics, form an extremely difficult role requiring a very uniquely talented individual. It is a challenge that Garrison meets head on, drawing from experiences playing the role multiple times in productions all over the U.S. and the UK.
While on stage, Garrison dips deep into the world of Hedwig, bringing the audience along for the swim. Musically, his execution of the show’s phenomenal score honors the original, while still coming alive with its own organic energy, with a great deal of help from the band, of course. The tender and philosophical ballad "The Origin of Love" is, as can be expected, a highlight, as well as the audience sing-a-long-friendly "Wig in a Box."
Between songs, his comic timing is spot on, finding a pleasing balance between narcissism and self-deprecation that gives this Hedwig the trademark flavor of a deeply troubled diva. The performance is practically perfect.
ATC ensemble member Sadieh Rifai gives a believable performance as Yitzhak, Hedwig’s "right-hand man" who stands on the sidelines, yearning for a chance to play out his own dreams of being a fabulous drag performer. Yitzhak’s own challenges mirror Hedwig’s, exploring the tensions between what you want, what you have and what may never be, adding depth to our perception of Hedwig’s strife.
The production itself is not without flaw. Some of the blocking was a bit awkward, for instance, placing the lead character in barely visible places at a few particularly crucial moments, leaving the audience to dart its gaze confusedly between several other potential points of focus.
But the successes of this production greatly outweigh any shortcomings. The music is phenomenal, the performances are strong and, if you have a heart, you will end this dark show with your hands in the air - as the lyrics of "Midnight Radio" instruct - crying and screaming for more.
"Hedwig and the Angry Inch’s run at the ATC, 1909 W. Byron St., has just been extended through May 31, with shows performed Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 3 p.m. and late night Saturdays (May 2-16) at 11 p.m. More information, including video previews, and tickets are available at www.atcweb.org or by calling (773) 409-4125.