Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
In the last few years I have seen Hedwig writ large by way of a national touring company at the Ordway, and writ small in the vest pocket-sized Cabaret Theatre at Camp Bar. Both productions had their virtuesstarting with Stephen Trask's propulsive and poignant score, and a whip-smart book by John Cameron Mitchellbut the Ritz Theater, Theater Latté Da's home base, makes the best fit for a show that is too intimate to thrive in a super-sized auditorium, but needs some breathing room for its larger than life star attraction, Hedwig, to be fully realized. The combination of venue, Michael King's galvanizing performance, a superb supporting performance by Jay Owen Eisenberg, a four-piece band cooking at full heat, and impeccable direction by Annie Enneking and Peter Rothstein seems like the formula for making Hedwig and the Angry Inch this spring's hot ticket, must-see attraction.
Back to Hedwig, who is introduced after a rocking pre-show set by her band The Angry Inch. Entering from the shabby trailer that has become her home, Hedwig welcomes us to her club show, stumbling over double entendres ("Thank you ... I do love a warm hand on my entrance") and hinting that what we are about to see might be more confessional than performance. Hedwig was born as Hansel in East Berlin at the height of the Cold War, with the Berlin Wall cleverly created by a translucent white tarp pulled across the proscenium. This tarp becomes a screen on which "The Origin of Love" is brilliantly projected using cut-paper and animation. Hansel's mother told him this fable of an earlier time when people were born fused in pairs so they would never be alonesome both male, some both female, some male and female. Angry gods split those pairs asunder, and human happiness has ever since depended on finding one's lost partner. When Luther, an American G.I., takes a fancy to Hanselto all but his genitaliaHansel agrees to become Hedwig, thinking that will unite him with his lost half. But the surgery goes awry, leaving Hedwig with only an angry inch of flesh.
Soon after bringing Hedwig to the army-base town of Junction City, Kansas, Luther splits and Hedwig does what she must to make a living, which includes performing in low-watt clubs and babysitting for an army general's family. She coaches his adolescent son Tommy both in satisfying his physical desires and playing rock guitar. Tommy becomes a huge star and Hedwig is again left behind. Along the way she meets Yitzhak, who becomes her backup singer, assistant and husband. She bullies Yitzhak mercilessly, forbidding him from placing a wig upon his headas he had when they met and Yitzhak was performing in drag. Hedwig's despair over Tommy's rejection of her, and her cruel grip on Yitzhak trigger her steady melt down over the show's riveting ninety minutes.
I have already stated, but cannot overstate, how well Tyler Michaels King nails this arduous role. His clear singing, with a range of stylesfrom the jaunty "Sugar Daddy" and "Wig in a Box" to the haunting "Wicked Little Town," which is repeated in a shattering reprise, to the hard rock angst of "The Angry Inch"is pitch perfect, melodic while conveying Hedwig's brittle spirit and emotional neediness. Michaels King has often excelled as a featured dancer, and here he moves about and on the stage with a leonine grace. Unlike other Hedwigs I have seen on stage, and more like John Cameron Mitchel, the role's creator and originator on stage and in the 2001 film version, Michaels King begins the evening as a broken individual, her self-deprecating jokes and hyperbolic account of her life's journey providing no cover for the evident pain she has endured.
Though it is a near wordless performance, Jay Own Eisenberg conveys Yitzhak's humiliation as well as his loyalty, his inability to leave Hedwig until she is ready for him to do so. He makes a well-suited backup singer for Hedwig on several songs, but especially comes into his own in a solo spot, "Exquisite Corpse," which fairly well captures Hedwig's self-destructive decline. In most productions and in the movie, Yitzhak, conceived as a male who is made to repress his urge to be female, is played by a woman. Having Eisenberg, a transgender actor, play this role, brings a unique slant to his performance.
Hedwig depends upon costumes, from glam to tawdry, to illustrate the phases of her rise and fall, and Alice Fredrickson has designed a closetful of beauties, greatly abetted by Paul Bigot's hair and wig design. Michael Hoover's stage setthe low-rent trailer one side, a Goodwill vintage refrigerator and dinette furniture on the other, and the Angry Inch jerry-rigged bandstand in the middlesuggests the effort Hedwig has had to take to make do with little, while Mary Shabatura's lighting design draws out the emotional peaks and valleys of each of Hedwig's auto-biographical songs.
Junction City, Kansas, where much of Hedwig and the Angry Inch takes place, is actually creator and playwright Mitchell's hometown, and there are some autobiographical elements in the show. Mitchell's past is closer to the role of Tommy than to Hedwig: his family employed a German babysitter who also worked as a prostitute and, like Tommy, Mitchell is gay and grew up as the son of a general in a home steeped in Catholicism.
When Mitchell brought this story to life in 1998, having a transgender lead character raised issues not often openly discussed. Times have changed, with radio talk show call-in segments on transgender rest rooms in schools and government proclamations both for and against transgender individuals in the armed forces. If these issues are not yet fully resolved, we are at least having public discourse about them. However, Mitchell has stated that he did not create Hedwig as a trans woman, but gender queer, a person outside the binary distinction between male and female. In 2014 he stated in an interview to the Toronto Star, "She's more than a woman or a man. She's a gender of one, and that is accidentally so beautiful."
Beautiful, yes, but not easily assimilated into a world constructed around the binary concept of gender. When Tommy places his hand on Hedwig's groin, and recoils in shock after discovering the "angry inch" that is neither male nor female, he asks "What is that?," to which Hedwig ruefully replies "It's what I have to work with." In 2019, would many young Tommys be better prepared for what they discovered on Hedwig, or for Hedwig's response? Perhaps ... but the uncertainty makes Hedwig and the Angry Inch not only emotionally engrossing and musically engaging, but also an entry point into honest discussions on gender and sex that, in many ways, have only just begun. That is a compelling reason to see this production. But the opportunity to catch Tyler Michaels King in a blazing star turn is reason enough.
Hedwig and the Angry Inch, through May 5, 2019, at Theater Latté Da, Ritz Theater, 345 13th Avenue NE, Minneapolis MN. Tickets: $39.00 - $51.00, $5.00 reduction for partially obstructed view seating. For tickets call 612-339-3303 or go to theaterlatteda.com.
Book: John Cameron Mitchell; Music and Lyrics: Stephen Trask; Co-Directors: Annie Enneking and Peter Rothstein; Music Director: Jason Hansen; Assistant Director: Kari Olk; Scenic Design: Michael Hoover; Costume Design: Alice Fredrickson; Costume Design Assistant: Dakota Blankenship; Lighting Design: Marcus Dilliard; Sound Design: Sean Healey; Hair and Wig Design: Paul Bigot; Projection and Diary Artist: Noah Lawrence-Holder; Projections Designer: Kathy Maxwell; Properties Master: Abbee Warmboe; Dramaturgy: Elissa Adams and Jay Own Eisenberg; Dialect Coach: Keely Wolter; Stage Manager: Tiffany K. Orr; Assistant Stage Manager: Amanda K. Bowman; Technical Director: Bethany Reinfeld.
Cast: Jay Owns Eisenberg (Yitzhak), Tyler Michaels King (Hedwig); Musicians: Jendeen Forberg (percussion), Jason Hansen (keyboards), Mayda Miller (bass), Jakob Smith (guitar).