Congratulations to People’s Branch Theatre for kicking off its new season with a musical that’s, ah, well, a cut above. Hedwig and the Angry Inch tells the story of an East German rock singer whose sex change operation goes terribly awry. It leaves him with faulty plumbing and a profound identity crisis. But it also teaches him a painful lesson about the elusiveness of love.
Hedwig (née Hansel) is a teenager who undergoes a sex change in order to marry an American noncom who is leaving Berlin to return to America. Given his mutilated genitalia, which leave him neither fully male nor female, Hedwig finds life outside the communist bloc to be a bittersweet thing. To make matters worse, shortly after his operation the Berlin Wall comes tumbling down, and its fall is thick with irony: Hedwig could have had his capitalistic liberty and phallus, too.
Eric Tichenor (Hedwig) is probably best known for appearing in minor comic roles at Chaffin’s Barn Dinner Theatre. But in Hedwig he breaks out in welcome fashion, delivering a 90-minute-long monologue with music that relates his character’s entire sordid history. It’s a bizarre story, laced with puns, double entendres, funny asides about contemporary culture, bitchy barbs directed at bygone female pop icons (Toni Tennille, Helen Reddy, Anne Murray), remarks about his agent Phyllis Stein (Philistine?) and even some pointed ad libs about Nashville that don’t sound out of place.
Ross Brooks directs a production that is both energetic and emotionally affecting. His staging is minimal. In effect, we’re treated to a rock concert, with frontman Hedwig calling the shots.
Also impressive is Brooke Bryant, who plays Hedwig’s petulant lover and backup singer Yitzhak. Bryant is terrific in this gender-bending role: she must assume the macho stance of a woman acting like a man who nonetheless wants to be a woman. (Everybody got that?) Bryant is also a solid musician, accompanying Hedwig’s plaintive ballads with deft solo piano.
The band, called The Angry Inch, includes Adam Moody on lead guitar, R. Alex Murray on bass and Martin Lynds on drums. They do nicely with their derivative punk and rock numbers, maintaining deadpan gazes as Tichenor belts, shouts and otherwise narrates his way through the dreary but evocative lyrics.
A key subplot involves Hedwig’s former partner, Tommy Gnosis, who’s gone on to become a pop star singing effete renditions of Hedwig’s own, ahem, ballsy material. A large onstage video screen runs footage of Gnosis in concert (director Brooks takes on this role) while Hedwig makes understandably caustic comments.
This is a surprisingly sensitive show, despite all its vitriol. It’s also a play with real depth. Beneath Hedwig’s sarcasm and dark humor, there’s a thematic undercurrent that raises serious questions about how we as humans define identity and sexuality. A spiritual crescendo is reached when Hedwig finally doffs his wig-and-dress getup, making a symbolic strut of androgynous freedom. Here’s to hoping he/she finds some richly deserved peace of mind.
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AGGGHHHH that last picture!