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Mad About You

Theater preview: Hedwig and the Angry Inch


Published July 7, 2004 at 6:10 p.m.

It's a balmy Wednesday night on Church Street, all flippy skirts and slow jazz, when "Miss Hedwig" descends on 1/2. "She" ascends, actually, to the Burlington bar's tiny stage, inquiring with indomitable Euro-disdain, "Why do they call it the 1/2 Bar? Maybe because it's only comfortable for pint-sized people."

At six foot five -- plus platform shoes -- the East German artist formerly known as Hansel doesn't exactly fit in that category. The patrons, innocently sipping their mojitos, soon discover that her emotional presence is bigger still.

Dominating the stage in a denim jumper fringed with a maroon boa, Hedwig rails against her absent band, the Angry Inch, who dared to play a recent gig without her at the Waiting Room.

"I was at Nectar's eating gravy fries, and they were over there doing acoustic folk rock," she says, sniffing with outrage. "We're a punk band, and they were covering Dave Matthews!"

After Hedwig threatens to perform solo, armed only with maracas, two members of the errant band appear. The songstress forgives them for their defection, but only just: "If I was you, I would get your asses on your guitars, because I have your passports right here. It would be oh-so-sad to get thrown out of the country right before the Fourth of July."

With surly glances but no backtalk, the partial band -- "Skszp" on guitar, "Krzysztof" on bass -- launches into one of its signature songs, the haunting "Origin of Love." Between numbers, Hedwig takes out some of her residual pissiness on the audience, which now includes a knot of gawkers outside on the pavement. "Why is that funny?" she asks after one of her more egregious double-entendres gets a laugh. "This is a rough crowd." But she's a lady to the last, exiting the venue with a polite "Thank you for having me!" And, of course, "Come see the show!"

Actually, all this is taking place at 135 Pearl; the show -- Hedwig and the Angry Inch - starts a six-night run there this Thursday. It's the Burlington premiere of John Cameron Mitchell's cult rock musical, which played off-Broadway to acclaim and awards from 1998 to 2000. Since then, Hedwig productions have spread across the globe, and the film version made a splash at the Sundance Festival in 2001. It comes to Vermont thanks to Robert Toms. The 35-year-old artistic director of 135 Pearl and its Shoebox Theater plays Hedwig in the show.

The play takes the form of a rock cabaret in which Hedwig tells her life story through songs and monologues, pausing along the way to tease the audience or taunt her stone-faced band. She was born a boy --Hansel --in Communist East Berlin and raised on Ameri-can pop-rock. A Crying Game moment with an African-American sergeant precipitated a sex-change. But the operation was bungled, leaving Hedwig with an "angry inch" that gives the lie to her femininity.

As the play begins, years and rejections have transformed Hedwig from an Army wife into a small-venue punk-rock princess with an axe to grind. Just a few blocks over in Memorial Auditorium, her ex-lover Tommy Gnosis, a geeky-teen-turned-rock-icon, is performing a show consisting of songs stolen from Hedwig. Through an "open" door we hear snatches of the hilariously heavy-handed monologues Tommy is delivering to his own audience.

Will he ever give Hedwig the credit she deserves? Will Hedwig ever learn to speak civilly to Yitzhak, her long-suffering backup singer and "husband," whom she uses as a punching bag in her one-sided verbal sparring?

The movie version of Hedwig uses flashbacks and a full cast to dramatize these conflicts from Hedwig's past. But in the play, which unfolds in real time, it's all about the diva herself. She speaks directly to us, playing most of the parts in her story. "It's like a trainwreck -- a therapy session gone wrong," says Toms.

The Burlington production of Hedwig had its genesis when Toms saw the Off-Broadway production and was "floored." "I wanted to take the challenge; to see if I could do justice to this character," he says.

Jonathan Whitton, who's codirecting the show with Jordan Gullikson, had a similar experience when he first saw Hedwig in a New York "flophouse." "I fell in love with this person," says Whitton --so much so that he felt compelled to stage it back home in South Carolina. When he moved to Vermont last January, Whitton took one look at 135 Pearl and thought, "This would be a perfect place to do Hedwig."

The actual impetus for the production came from Toms, who recruited Whitton and Gullikson, a New York-trained actor-director who had worked with him on Shoebox's production of Saucy Jack and the Space Vixens. Gullikson sees his role as bringing out the different levels of Hedwig's drama. "Within the humor and kitsch, it's an amazingly powerful story," he says. "The show's continuity gives it its emotional power."

"There's a vulnerability attached to playing Hedwig, because you're wide open," says Whitton, who played the role in South Carolina. He says he's letting Toms "feel the character out for himself."

Then there's the music. A robust Angry Inch back-up band is as crucial to the show's success as a well-realized Hedwig. On occasion, they play her foil. Burlington's version of the sullen Eastern Bloc foursome is a novel fusion -- Toms isn't kidding when he talks about them getting folky at the Waiting Room. The show's musical director refers to herself simply as Antara. Originally from Cincinnati, she plays lead guitar and describes herself as a "new folk" singer-songwriter. She's toured regionally with bassist Chris Cheney, who came with her to the show. Keyboardist Adam Wood and drummer Chris Johnson, both veterans of the local music scene, round out the band.

"This takes me out of the genre I'm used to," says Antara, who does confess to an affinity for glam rock. The ensemble she's created is "not typical of the Hedwig bands" -- to start with, it substitutes acoustic rhythm for electric lead guitar. Then there's the fact that Antara has switched vocals with Yitzhak, played here by local musician and performance artist Nathan Jarvis. "It adds another layer of gender confusion," says Antara.

Hedwig straddles a metaphorical Berlin Wall between male and female, personifying that blurry line of demarkation. Does she personify gay pride as well? Toms thinks so. To him, the show says "that it's OK to hold true to your individuality and uniqueness. It's about universality and coexisting: being who you are in the mainstream. Gay Pride Day is a day of celebration. But the ultimate good is living in that freedom every day."

If Hedwig is about freedom, however, it's also about power and domination. In one of her more acerbic monologues, Hedwig describes how the sergeant first seduced her with a pack of American gummy bears. Many recent Hollywood films present wigs and high heels as talismans that liberate men of all stripes to discover their feminine sides. But the problem with Hedwig's sex change isn't just that it was incomplete -- it also wasn't her idea in the first place. So is gender confusion cool, or just confusing?

"There's a lot of tension in this play," says Antara. "The way it's written, there's a dose of camp, and then there's a sort of bipolar undercurrent of 'Hey, why are you laughing at me?' People ask me if it's OK to laugh." She says the cast and crew of the 135 Pearl production made a conscious decision to bring out the play's political undercurrents, rather than focusing on "the camp and the drag of it all. That's why our fliers don't have the lipstick and the hair."

When you start looking closely at Hedwig, Antara suggests, you find a "tornado of information" -- not just the "push and pull" of different sexual identities, but also the German-Jewish history that Hedwig references through her mistreatment of Yitzhak. There's more to this musical than a Rocky Horror for the new millennium.

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