Hedwig and the Angry Inch: Worth Every Penny

Brianna McFarlane

Certainly no one could say that the Ottawa theatre scene is dead or dying if ticket sales from Vanity Project Production’s Hedwig and the Angry Inch are any indication. Following a nearly sold out run last year, the remount was originally only scheduled to run for a four day stint, but increased ticket demand lead to an added fifth performance on Saturday night (which, as of 7:30pm on Wednesday night, became the only show left to have any available tickets). This local production of the Obie and Tony award winning musical (fronted by Neil Patrick Harris on Broadway) succeeds undoubtedly in staging a veritable glam-punk-rock show and capturing the raw emotion in Hedwigs musical score. Yet the problematics that arise naturally in the original text also arise in this production.  The audience is left with the wrong kind of uneasyquestions and confusion about traditional gender roles and the performativity of gender and transgender on stage.  Instead of challenging our perceptions of gender, this production seems to be confused about what would have been an engaging dialogue. However, the musical numbers are more than enough to carry this production and if you’re looking to have a boisterous night out at the theatre, it delivers performances and entertainment worth every penny.

Hedwig and the Angry Inch, written by John Cameron Mitchell with music and lyrics by Stephen Trask, is a rock musical about a fictional rock band fronted by an East German singer, Hedwig. The story itself is told by Hedwig, who’s gender is left undefined by the text, through extended monologues as a jaded rock artist trying to engage their audience in between sets. Accompanied onstage by the band throughout, we are told of Hedwig’s (then Hansel) childhood growing up as a “little slip of a girly boy” in then communist East Germany and their subsequent escape to the West through a marriage to an American soldier. This escape is not without cost, however, and we learn that in order to fulfil the traditional marriage constituents of being made up of “man and woman”, Hansel takes the passport of their mother and, at the mother’s behest, undergoes a sex change.

When the botched surgery leaves Hansel (now Hedwig) with nothing but a “dysfunctional one-inch mound of flesh” between their legs, Hedwig focuses their anger and bitterness back into their first love: music. Assembling a group of similar misfits, including back-up singer (and Hedwig’s foil) Yitzhak, the newly formed Hedwig and the Angry Inch start their musical journey off playing in bars and clubs.

A nuanced piece that fuses philosophy with rock music in an attempt to question gender norms, what it means to be gender non-conforming in today’s society, and how we perform gender, Hedwig and the Angry Inch ultimately ends on a note of hope and of self-acceptance.

The stage is set up as you might expect: keyboard, drum kit, bass, electric guitars, and a couple of mics. As you might also expect, the band starts entering the stage one by one, testing and tuning their instruments while quietly interacting amongst themselves and with the “sound guy” who runs to and from the booth.  This business cements the idea that we are about to watch a concert as opposed to a traditional stage play. Soon enough the band kicks up and you can’t help but cheer as Hedwig, in true frontman style, comes exploding out of the wings whirling and twirling about in a red, white, and blue cape. The party has just begun.

The ensemble, led by Director Stewart Matthews (also appearing onstage as lead guitarist Krzyzhtof), handle themselves well in this production for the most part. Though the band members are mostly silent and stationary upstage throughout Hedwig’s monologues, Krzyzhtof (Matthews), Schlatko (Steven Lafond), Jacek (Marc Connor), and Skszp (Scott Irving) come alive during the musical numbers and combined with a vivacious lead singer and the vocal stylings of Yitzhak you feel as though this band has been playing together for years. Rebecca Noelle as Yitzhak certainly has the pipes and the attitude to pull off this role (which makes sense considering her reputation as a solo vocal artist and as part of local Ottawa band, the PepTides).  Unfortunately the character of Yitzhak itself remains static and unchanged for the duration of the piece despite undergoing a major transformation at the piece’s culmination.

Yitzhak’s character has the potential to present an interesting foil to the existing challenge to traditional gender presentation provided by Hedwig. Whereas Hedwig’s gender is fluid or undefined, Yitzhak is a male who identifies as female and who is consequently played by a female. Yitzhak’s cross gendered casting is oppressive to the character whereas Hedwig’s is playful and challenging to the audience.

This depth is lost not only on Noelle, but the whole production really and thus Yitzhak has no real arc and the power of Yitzhak’s final presentation is severely diminished. Instead, what is being presented is a character who is mildly annoyed throughout the band’s entire set for no other apparent reason other than being back-up to Hedwig’s lead.

The same sort of shallowness applies also to Tim Oberholzer’s Hedwig. Hedwig, being unable to identify with either binary gender, discovers how they can continually reinvent themselves through the performance of Hedwig’s own version of theatrical femininity. Though Hedwig’s attire and makeup do evoke an almost over the top drag queen aesthetic, the most important thing to note about this character is that Hedwig is not simply a drag queen: Hedwig’s gender identity is more nuanced than this. Furthermore, although transgender drag queens do exist, transgender people and drag queens are not the same thing. When Hedwig breaks down (“Love the front of me!!”) and strips everything off until they are in nothing but their underwear, it should not be read as Hedwig accepting their “maleness”, but rather as an acceptance of their body and their gender, neither male or female, but both. While the performer certainly seems to understand the character’s inner motivations and demons when performing the songs, this same understanding is not maintained through the spoken text. Where this production seems to illuminate the “love story” between Hedwig and Tommy Gnosis, the musician’s struggles in coming to terms with how they actually relate to their gender and body (being technically neither traditionally male nor traditionally female) appear to get left in the dark. Again, a small but decisively important detail that gets lost in this production.

All this being said Oberholzer and Noelle do a fantastic job with the music in this show and play off of each other in a believable manner. Oberholzer especially brings all of his energy and intensity to each piece of music and he sustains the appropriate emotional drive motivating each number. In truth, he is successful in embodying the rock star on the verge of breakdown through the music, but it’s the bits in between that could use more defining.

Ultimately, when reviewing a show the overall context of the piece and the production company’s mandate must be taken into consideration. It seems a bit redundant to criticize a company for not pushing themselves further artistically when their goals are strictly commercial. Striving to create theatre that is fun, affordable, and accessible to all, Vanity Project Productions has definitely succeeded with this production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Providing an overall lively and entertaining musical experience; this show guarantees a great time for their audience members (especially if you’re a fan of the glam rock era of the 1970s).

No, this production doesn’t provide the depth needed to confront its audience with questions about a bigger picture, but perhaps this was not the intention of Director, Matthews. Just as importantly, however, they’ve put on stage a show that allows an audience to escape mindlessly into the universe of Hedwig through the music of the Angry Inch. The popularity of this show is validated by its well-deserved commercial success and I can now only eagerly anticipate Vanity Project Production’s next musical, The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

Hedwig and the Angry Inch

Written by John Cameron Mitchell with Music and Lyrics by Stephen Trask

A Vanity Project Production

Directed by Steward Matthews

Musical director/sound designer: Steven Lafond

Lighting Designer: David Magladry

Makeup, Wig Designer: Annie Lefebvre

Props: Jess Preece

Wardrobe: Patrice Ann Forbes

Projection Technician: Fiona Currie

Starring

Tim Oberholzer as Hedwig/Tommy Gnosis

Rebecca Noelle as Yitzhak

Stewart Mattews as Krzyzhtof

Steven Lafond as Schlatko

Marc Connor as Jacek

Scott Irving as Skszp