April 17, 2009

Inch measures up with gender-bending glam

A young boy in East Berlin gets a botched sex-change to come to America, where he is abandoned, turns tricks, falls in love, is abandoned again, and retells the entire story in a live glam-rock performance. Dear readers, may I present to you Hedwig and the Angry Inch.

“Reviled, graffitied, spit upon, we thought the [Berlin] Wall would stand forever, and now that it’s gone. we don’t know who we are anymore,” announces Yitzhak (Sadieh Rifai), Hedwig’s husband, stage manager, and former Eastern European drag queen. “Ladies and gentlemen, Hedwig is like that wall, standing before you as a divide between east and west, slavery and freedom, man and woman.”

It’s a pretty clear statement of Hedwig’s political themes. But the play is motivated more by human interest than Cold War politics. It is the confusion of identity and the distortion of love due to societal constraints that makes the play so captivating.

In the song “The Origin of Love,” Hedwig (Nick Garrison) imagines a time where “folks roamed the earth like big rolling kegs/ they had two sets of arms/ they had two sets of legs.” Since this time, people were split apart and destined to spend their lives finding their “other half.” Hedwig believes that she has found her other half in Tommy Gnosis, a young aspiring rock star. But Tommy abandons her after he discovers the “angry inch” left after her failed sex change operation. He takes the music they made together and rises to stardom, leaving Hedwig in musical obscurity with her glam rock band Hedwig and the Angry Inch. It is on one of the band’s low-budget tours that Hedwig finds Yitzhak, another relationship that has fallen apart by the show’s beginning.

Hedwig talks about her life, punctuated by songs, arguments, personal attacks on the audience members, and a parallel concert offstage given by Gnosis, pieces of which we occasionally hear during Hedwig’s show. The dynamic between Hedwig and the unseen Gnosis, as well as between Hedwig and Yitzhak, draw the audience in and explore the implications of the divides—both sexual and political—that Hedwig embodies.

Hurling insults and snide comments at the audience and quarreling with everyone around her, Hedwig is abrasive, bitter, crude, belligerent, and drunk. “It’s great we have such a large opening tonight,” she quips. “Of course, when many people think of large openings they think of me.” Hedwig might be hard to fall in love with, but she’s fascinating to watch. Nick Garrison, who has played the same role in multiple productions, wonderfully embodies her eccentricity, energy, and magnetism.

American Theater Company’s production of the play takes place on a small stage and is structured as a half-live rock performance, half-personal monologue for the audience. Hedwig’s score draws from the glam and punk rock tradition of David Bowie, Iggy and the Stooges, The Velvet Underground, and the New York Dolls. If you like that sort of thing, then you will enjoy the music, not to mention the sullen yet talented punks playing it.

For those familiar with the film version of Hedwig, the small cast of the American Theater Company heightens the importance of performance as a motif throughout the play in a way that the film cannot. The impersonal “you” used by a singer on stage in a film becomes something quite different when that singer is staring into your eyes or sitting on your lap. Hedwig demands that the audience become, a part of the performance, for the worth of any performer, especially a musician, is marked by the support and approval of their audience. With a performance this deeply personal, the audience cannot passively stand by but wants to support the performers’ vulnerability and needs.

“Lift up your hands, lift up your hands,” sings Yitzhak at the play’s end. And it is no idle chorus, but a command directly to you, sitting three feet from the stage. The choice is yours to remain impassive to Hedwig’s narrative and performers, or feel a little silly and actively support them.

At the end of the day I don’t know if the play is a heartwarming story about finding love, a bitter tale of love lost, or an abrasive punk concert fueled by the Cold War and/or gender politics. But any show that can cover so much ground while making puns on Kant and the Rolling Stones gets my vote any day.