Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay

Hedwig and the Angry Inch
Shotgun Players
Review by Patrick Thomas

Pangaea Colter and Elizabeth Curtis
Photo by Ben Krantz
Hedwig and the Angry Inch, which opened Saturday night at Ashby Stage in a Shotgun Players production is, at its heart, an incredibly tragic story: Hansel, a young man living in divided East Berlin is spied one day by an American serviceman, who falls hard for the "girly boy." But to leave the communist-ruled city, Hansel (Pangaea Colter) and Luther must be married. Since this all takes place before legal marriage equality, that means Hansel must become a woman. "To be free," Hansel (now Hedwig) sings, "one must give up a little part of oneself." He does, but the operation is botched, and Hedwig ends up with a "one-inch mound of flesh."

Hedwig is then taken to Kansas, where the marriage quickly falls apart, leaving Hedwig divorced, living in a trailer park, making ends meet by babysitting and doing "those jobs we call 'blow'." She writes an album's worth of great songs, which are then stolen by the boy she was babysitting, who becomes an arena-filling rock star (named Tommy Gnosis) on the back of her genius, while Hedwig and her band, The Angry Inch, end up playing dives like a Sizzler in Junction City, Kansas, or the Ashby Sit 'n Spin, the venue created inside the Ashby Stage (in a wildly graffitied, punked-out set by Carlos Aceves.)

Tragedy, right? Well, not so fast. Because, despite all the horrors–perhaps most especially that soon after Hansel becomes Hedwig and leaves Berlin, the Wall comes down and Hansel could have left home intact–Hedwig and the Angry Inch manages to be joyous and life-affirming. Part of this joy comes from the songs, a mix of punk, hard rock, pop, power ballads that howl with rage, irreverence, and righteous anger. The sad tale becomes life-affirming because, despite being victimized–by Luther, her mother, and the fates–Hedwig never feels like a victim. Even when she bemoans her circumstances, treats her husband Yitzhak (Elizabeth Curtis) with haughty disdain, or screams out the door at the sounds coming from a nearby Tommy Gnosis concert, Hedwig carries herself with the strutting confidence of someone who has come to accept who she is and doesn't really care what you think about her.

As Hedwig, Colter has the swagger, but she may embrace the joy of the role a bit too much. Hedwig throws shade like a pro, but Colter lacks the bitter edge that I've enjoyed in the previous four performers I've seen play the role (John Cameron Mitchell, Neil Patrick Harris, Darren Criss, and Coleton Schmitto). The bitterness gives the humor its bite, and in no way detracts from the joyous egoism the role requires. In addition, although Colter has a strong belt, she had some trouble with breath control, especially during the first half of the show, and her comic timing was often out of tune with the text. Giving some moments even half a beat more would increase the impact of the many great lines written by John Cameron Mitchell. (Music and lyrics are by Stephen Trask.)

Elizabeth Curtis has a great time as the put-upon second fiddle, and her delicious singing voice is a marvelous backup to Colter's growl. When she lets loose on "I Will Always Love You" (which is in the show only to be mocked), I felt the audience sit a little straighter in their seats at the technical skill she shows.

The costumes (Kip Yanaga) are a show in themselves–especially Hedwig's pieced denim mini-dress and half faux-fur, half faux-leather floor length coat with a bloody stuffed animal sewn below the back collar. But the real star of the show is the four-piece Black Dyke Rock Band, composed of Shelly Doty and Katie Cash on guitars, Vicki Randle on bass, and Kofy Brown on drums. These women play like rock is a dose of medicine you need to survive and they are committed to making sure you get top-notch treatment, no deductible required.

Although I'd rank this Hedwig as the weakest of the five productions I've seen, the show itself is wonderful. Director Richard Mosqueda's artistic choices feel right in tune with the grungy, queer aesthetic of the show, so I'm hopeful that after a few more performances, the cast will find the rhythms required to tell this tragic (but somehow upbeat) story with both the joy and bitterness is requires.

Hedwig and the Angry Inch runs through December 17, 2023, at the Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby Avenue, Berkeley CA. Performances are Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7:00 p.m. (except Thanksgiving - show that week is Tuesday the 21st at 7:00 p.m.), Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m. and Sundays at 5:00 p.m.. Tickets are $28-$49. For tickets and information, please visit