Hedwig and The Angry Inch
As they say, "It might get loud." No, scratch that: it will get loud, and that's part of the show. (Don't worry, ear plugs are for sale in the lobby.)
Hedwig and the Angry Inch, playing through Nov. 22 at the Arsenal Center for the Arts in Watertown is a curious hybrid of cabaret, punk rock musical theater, and drag act. The script, by John Cameron Mitchell, gives band frontman--or, rather, front transwoman--Hedwig (Danny Bryck) a virtual monologue made up in equal parts of stand-up act and biographical narrative. Born as Hansel Schmidt, son of an American G.I. and a German mother who got caught on the wrong side of the Berlin Wall, Hedwig yearned from an early age to find a significant other--always, in Hedwig's mind, a man--who would offer completion.
The built-in metaphor is a lovely thing. As Hansel grows up listening to the songs of the West, his head stuck in the tiny flat's oven (there's no room for him to play anywhere else), his own personal divisions grow steeper and steadily more defined. His father is on the other side of the Wall, presumably somewhere in America; did he, like the mythical missing half who will in Hansel's dreams, one day be his lover, simply abscond with "the good stuff," like luck, joy, and meaning?
It's almost a Freudian necessity that when Hansel meets his first love, it turns out to be an American soldier. But the only way the two of them can be together and cross the Wall into the West and freedom is if Hansel crosses the gender divide, taking his mother's name and becoming Hedwig. As one of the more memorable songs in the show's set tells it, "The sex change operation got botched!" Hence the name of Hedwig's band--the Angry Inch (portrayed by the Hot Protestants and Emeen Z).
Even as she tells her tale, it's clear that Hedwig has not yet found her happy ending: she's together with bandmate Yitzhak (A. Tully) now, but their disdain for one another is public, as are their on-stage spats. Between the American GI and Yitzhak, Hedwig fell for--and professionally cultivated--top musical talent Tommy Gnosis, whose own concert can be heard playing in the distance whenever Hedwig opens an exit door in order to eavesdrop on his set. Describing the love affair with Tommy Gnosis--from its scandalous origins to its equally scandalous, and tabloid-worthy, coda--actor Danny Bryck drops into Tommy's American voice: adolescent, a little vacant, an accent from some nameless flyover state. Bryck is a marvelous mimic, speaking and singing with a convincing German accent and barking out the occasional line of German dialogue, usually when upbraiding Yitzhak.
Set and lighting designer PJ Strachman has made over the black box space at the New Rep into "The Rathskeller," a Kenmore Square venue that closed in 1997. That's not an anachronism: the play is set in the mid-1990s. The Rathskeller is a suitably Germanic-named setting, and Strachman achieves a cabaret-tavern feel with a couple of neon beer signs, a rack of lights, and a full musical setup for drums, guitars, and keyboards. (Equipment crates flanking the set add to the atmosphere.) A screen behind the band serves for illustrative slides and animation, amping both the comedy and the drama of the production; after all, the underlying theme is all about finding one's other half, and though the material is funny, it also resonates with identity conflict and lonely anguish, all of which is pointed up with tuneful urgency in the songs by Stephen Trask.
Director Kevin Mark Kline brings those deeper undercurrents out in the production. For every wild zinger Hedwig tosses out ("I'm sorry--I'm completely dilated right now," or, "It wasn't a traditional wedding. For example, when he popped the question, I was on my knees!") there's a counter-balancing pause, or flustered, revealing aside, or moment of humiliation (as when a suddenly tender Hedwig turns to Yitzak, only for him to spit in Hedwig's face). We know we're in for more than a mere multimedia experience or experiment in theatrical hybrid from the first moments, when Hedwig strides on stage, a towering vision in fishnet full-length gloves, hugely proportioned hair, and lethal-looking red high-heeled boots, spitting out the greeting, "Do you know me? I'm the new Berlin Wall!"
Or rather, she's half of what the Wall divides. The other half, Tommy Gnosis--also played by Bryck, as stunning in a stripped-down, shirtless rocker look as he is in those boots--is clawing at that wall, too, with regret and anguish just as deep as Hedwig's. The play is scathing and hot with a raw sting of separation, and of isolation: fitting for the medium, and for the music. Just be sure to pick up a pair of those earplugs, or bring your own.
Hedwig and the Angry Inch plays through Nov. 22 at the Arsenal Center for the Arts, 321 Arsenal Street, in Watertown.
Tickets cost $18-$25 and can be obtained from the box office by calling 617-923-8487.
Performance schedule: Saturdays at 2:00, 7:30, and 10:00 p.m.; Sundays at 2:00 p.m.; Thursdays at 7:30 p.m.; and Fridays at 7:30 and 10:00 p.m.