April 15, 2019
Photo by Dan Norman
The 1998 glam rock musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch looks at the emotional aftershocks of what has come to be called gender reassignment or gender confirmation surgery. At the time, the older term “sex change” was still in common and acceptable use to some degree. What makes the more up-to-date terms more problematic in referring to Hedwig, is that the surgery referred to was coerced and went terribly awry; hence, the term “angry inch”.
Hedwig’s framework as a musical theater work peers into the tormented world of glam musician Hedwig and how she inflicts her trauma onto Yitzhak, her genderqueer Jewish husband, who loves her at any cost. Yitzhak also serves as a background artist for her band. The story the musical relates ranges from Communist East Berlin to the American Midwest in the later years of the last century.
Unfortunately for Yitzhak, Hedwig remains obsessed with a cisgender male singer from a conservative Christian background stage-named by Hedwig as “Tommy Gnosis” (birth name: Tommy Speck) who rejected her out of fear and theology. Some might call it religious indoctrination, though that is a debatable topic. Her band actually stalks his performance tour by setting up its own performance engagements near Tommy’s gigs. Hedwig can’t quit him and can’t face the reality that she can’t have him. Therefore, Hedwig cannot and will not take responsibility for her inner demons and move on. Tommy and Hedwig had once collaborated on music, which makes his imprint on her all the more emotionally painful.
It’s the grasp of the grip of those demons that makes Theater Latte Da’s production co-directed by Annie Enneking and Peter Rothstein at the Ritz so intensely effective. Tyler Michaels King in the title role shrewdly discerns how Hedwig uses hardened and dismissive glibness as a chronic defense mechanism against the feelings of rejection spurred by the transphobic man she loves—and she infuses everyone around her with that disquietude. What undercuts the hardened attitude is that the description of Tommy’s “attraction-repulsion” to her is beguiling and a brilliantly written passage in the text. It’s the one section of the musical where most audience members’ hearts will go out to her, and it typically wins much of the audience over to her.
Viewers are largely influenced into thinking Tommy is, at his core, attracted to Hedwig, but cannot bring himself to make the leap. Again, a debatable topic. However, one can argue that her feelings for Tommy are possessive and not loving or soulfully spiritual. At the same time Hedwig hit the theater scene, there was much cross-cultural chatter about the importance of unconditional love, something that book writer John Cameron Mitchell would surely have been aware of. It’s up to the individual audience member to make that determination of just how genuine vs. needy Hedwig’s feelings truly are. This is part of its power.
Moreover, Hedwig inflicts that defensive glibness onto her audience, which many viewers seem to relish, and onto the emotionally masochistic Yitzhak (a fittingly dejected Jay Owen Eisenberg) who is clearly demeaned by it.
To some degree, Hedwig justifies her harshness by manipulating the Platonic concept derived from The Symposium in the song, The Origin of Love. It reflects on an ancient tale about our species once being comprised of twin-bodied beings with two genders, sundered by Zeus. The split meant the beings spent the rest of their lives seeking out their lost part of their self. One thinks of the notion of one’s “other half” as mused upon in discussions about finding one’s soul mate. Hedwig has embraced the idea hook, line, and sinker. It animates her Tommy obsession. If she can ultimately possess the unattainable Tommy as a soul mate, she will have achieved nirvana. What’s to happen to Yitzhak, the musical’s sacrificial figure, is anyone’s guess.
The Theater Latte Da staging’s strongest elements are the band musicians, King, and Paul Bigot’s wig design. Music director and keyboard artist Jason Hansen drives full throttle into Stephen Trask’s bedazzling music and lyrics. The glam sound and heavy metal jackhammer punch is dynamically rendered by percussionist Jendeen Forberg, bassist Mayda Miller, and guitarist Jakob Smith. The entire music sensorium exudes the emanation of pagan ritual with knotty punk overtones. Imagine an ecstatic mix of the Sex Pistols and Woodstock. Bigot’s fittingly overblown wig work is splendid icing on the cake. The audience the night I attended was utterly enrapt throughout. But be warned: the music is loud!
King has come to hold the position as Twin Cities musical theater’s Golden Child, complete with a raft of rave reviews of recent years and an ever-expanding fan base—and with good reason. A quartet of performances has shaped that. First was Latte Da’s Cabaret, in which King’s lurid version of the emcee is likely among the most drippingly erotic takes on that iconic role ever. Audiences and critics went wild. In stunning contrast, he charmed with youthful purity as Prince Eric in the Chanhassen production of The Little Mermaid and his most underrated, and frankly, best performance in my view, in the Guthrie’s My Fair Lady, for which he lit up the stage as Freddie. Now with Hedwig, King delves again into the dark side with as broad an emotional range as is achievable within the strictures of the script and lyrics. He finds nuance that lesser actors wouldn’t. Known for his marvelous vocals in more standard musical fare, King shifts gears into the glam agony as if born to it.
Some trans people understandably find Hedwig, the character, to be problematic. However, she’s not as brazenly vampiric as Dr. Frank-N-Furter in The Rocky Horror Show, who up until Hedwig was the highest profile trans character in contemporary theater. Nonetheless, the Angry One shares similar foibles with the mad scientist doctor. Mitchell demonstrates skill in how he has made Hedwig comparatively more sympathetic and more human than Frank-N-Furter. Nor is Hedwig is the cartoon that Frank-N-Furter is. Moreover, Mitchell deserves some credit for evolving trans theatrical representation beyond Rocky Horror, as did Felicity Huffman for her Oscar-nominated film turn seven years later for Transamerica. Though all these representations may or may not measure up to the current trans standard, they’re part of cultural history. Recall that gay activists may actually have set back the cause by railing against plays of the 1960s like The Boys in the Band and The Killing of Sister George because they were not positive enough. Films of the late 1960s like The Sergeant and The Detective had star turns by Rod Steiger and Frank Sinatra that cases can be made were robbed of Best Actor Oscar nods in a time when those nominations carried heavy social influence. Again, the positive image card was played against them. Therefore, a broad societal discussion that could have transpired, did not.
Eight years after Hedwig, Mitchell wrote his remarkable screenplay for Shortbus, a film that canvassed a broad range of sexual behavior, its issues and psychology. (He also directed.) Looking back at Hedwig, which was also made into a 2001 film, the earlier Mitchell writes with broader strokes that reflect a nihilistic frame of mind. Shortbus was a successful effort at wresting himself away from that to some degree. Shortbus stands on Hedwig’s shoulders.
However, it is nihilism that shapes the earlier Hedwig and the Angry Inch and artists interpreting it must contend with the demands thereof. One of the challenges is that Yitzhak is essentially whipped emotionally from start to finish. The role is written at a continually high emotional pitch, much like the characters in Euripedes’s The Trojan Women, Penelope, the politically-correct mother in Reza’s God of Carnage, and the Jewish-Hungarian death camp captive in the film, Son of Saul. These roles challenge the actor to mine subtleties in a pool of characters in extreme emotional states from start to finish. The role of Yitzhak is written at a continuous level of a character receiving abuse. On the Ritz stage, there needs to be more moments that pinpoint specific mental cruelty inflicted by Hedwig onto her husband. The abuse of Yitzahk is generalized and sweeping rather than honed in on. King needs to give Eisenberg more specific examples of passive-aggressive behavior to play off of in order to create variation and character textures for both.
We can’t own or possess others. The fact that we may be traumatized doesn’t exempt us from treating others humanely. These are lessons to take away from Hedwig and the Angry Inch. The Latte Da production clearly makes that known. It also warns us of how young people dominated by foolish and selfish elders, as Hedwig had been in childhood and youth, can become the emotional footballs of others later in their lives if they don’t regain their self-esteem. As “psychobabbley” as that may sound, it is still a worthy caution built into the Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Not to mention, it works vividly as a cautionary tale about the dangers of obsession, no matter what your gender identity or sexual orientation may be.
Hedwig and the Angry Inch
Through May 5
Ritz Theater, 345 13th Ave. NE, Minneapolis