An Angry and Revealing Hedwig

You want to see a play, that friend of yours who hates plays is in town, and wants to go to a concert, and has brought along someone whose only interest is politics. And drag queens. And hates Broadway musicals. The solution? John Cameron Mitchell and Stephen Trask’s cult rock-drag-politics and decidedly anti-traditional 1998 musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch, now directed by Marc Eardley, for 3S Theatre Collective, at the Barrow Mansion in Jersey City. If you haven’t seen this show yet, then you’ve probably been living in the title character’s wig box. Mitchell and Trask’s whimsical allusions and wordplay span the Platonic creation myth to cold war history, playfully revealing connections between topical problems and existential mysteries. Trask’s music competes easily with the rock classics of which Hedwig sings snatches throughout his mid-gig banter. Whitton’s spirited performance will delight the show’s fans while showing the previously uninitiated why Hedwig has become a legend.

In that legend, Hansel Schmitt (played by sonorous cabaret singer and actor Jonathan Whitton) hates life in East Berlin, with his quasi-fascist drone of a mother, and without his sexually abusive father, an American soldier sometime stationed in West Berlin. Like his mother, Hansel is soon seduced by an American “sugar daddy” in uniform, who offers him a new life in Kansas, the part of America famously located on the oppressive, grey side of the Rainbow Curtain. Hence a botched sex change, which turns Hansel into one Mrs. Hedwig Robertson, saddled with an “angry inch” of his natural genitalia, and, soon, reams of abandonment, loss, anger, and artistic inspiration.

The biggest loss of Hedwig’s life, however, is either his American soul mate, army brat and famous rocker Tommy Gnosis, who fled from the indeterminateness of his “angry inch” and own confusion, or Hedwig’s passionately-authored songs, which Tommy stole and presented to the world as his own. While performing a gig in a hideous dive on the night of one of Tommy’s big commercial concerts, Hedwig finally reveals all, and tries to work out how he is incomplete, and whether he can put himself together again.

I say “he” and “his,” in contrast to most authors writing on this play and its film adaptation, because that is the best way to describe Hedwig. Unlike the other iconic East German transgender character, the heroine of Doug Wright’s Pulitzer-winning drama I Am My Own Wife, Hedwig does not become a woman because he has always felt like one, or ever felt like one, but because the laws on both sides of the Iron Curtain will not allow him to marry his GI Joe while remaining a man. Hedwig arguably does not see himself as a woman, but as a mutilated gay man. He describes his “angry inch” as the place “where my vagina never was.” He resists facile identification as a woman, or with either side of the various walls that cut up his world, and ours.

Disturbingly, Hedwig has brought with him more than an inch of baggage from Germany. Throughout the show, he disparages and maltreats his “husband” and roadie Yitzhak (Louise Stewart), an Eastern European Jewish drag king (or is Yitzhak a drag queen, appearing not in drag, simply played by a woman?). “Atrocity, for man, woman… or freak,” Hedwig announces as he liberally spritzes perfume in Yitzhak’s face. As Hedwig’s dissolution increases, Yitzhak rebels, reaching for the human dignity and choices.

As Hedwig, Whitton is vehement, tragicomic, and, yes, extremely angry. Stewart gives a subtler performance as Yitzhak. She shows moments of fatigue, hatred, and subversion, but generally the character remains a device, without a full-fledged self. The band accompany the two actors with great verve and powerful sound, though sometimes it was a bit too powerful, muffling the specific wording of Hedwig’s rage.

Stephen K. Dobray’s set is minimal but effective, consisting only of the instruments and sound equipment of Hedwig and her “Angry Inch” band, some battered luggage, and a wall covered with graffiti. Some of the graffiti seemed to make the time-setting confusing. Hedwig arrived in Kansas in time for the fall of the Berlin Wall, but one graffiti slogan is “Impeach Bush”—imaginable only a decade later, unless it refers to the first president of that name.

Hedwig’s costumes, relatively simple concoctions of hot pink plastic, black leather, and gold lame, look suitably like the detritus of the 1980s. Designed by Laurie Marman, they aren’t as cheekily creative as they might be: the original Off-Broadway Hedwig’s blonde ringlets were shaped by toilet paper tubes. However, they are just ostentatious enough to articulate the character’s media-created glam-trash ideal of American womanhood.

“If there was a fourth wall,” Hedwig warns the audience, “you couldn’t see the actors.” This genre-bending, gender-bending piece, as realized by 3S, is transformatively revealing.

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