Regional Reviews: Wisconsin, SE
Hedwig and the Angry InchStageQ
The play The Madness of Lady Bright, by Lanford Wilson, came out of New York's Caffe Cino, known as the home of the Off-Off-Broadway movement, in 1964. It is also considered the first play to treat a gay character in an unsensational way. Its intense portrayal of an aging drag queen beset by hallucinatory voices and suffering a mental breakdown made a lasting impression.
Hedwig and the Angry Inch, now being presented by StageQ and directed by Jay Gile and Shawn D. Padley, is cut from the same cloth. Hedwig is essentially a solo musical for the character of Hedwig (Kai Prins), with the additional character of her husband and stage manager, Yitzhak (Elise Bargman). (An alternate cast stars Kalea Bicoy as Hedwig and Kai Prins as Yitzhak.)
Hedwig starts as a boy living a lonely life with his mother, a teacher of sculpting, in a tiny apartment in East Berlin. It's so tiny that she sculpts in the shower, while he practices singing in the oven. They share the same bed, though it's not clear whether they enjoy incestuous sheets. The young man Hansel meets an American, Sgt. Robinson, who wants to take him to America as his wife, in drag. Alas, Hansel must get sex-reassignment surgery to pass the physical, and the surgery goes awry, leaving him with a gash for a vagina and a mere shred of manhood (the "angry inch"). Robinson dumps Hansel, now Hedwig, who goes on to couple with a general's son, Tommy. Hedwig helps Tommy, now Tommy Gnosis, become a rock star. They write songs together. When Tommy leaves Hedwig, he takes their songs with him and performs them to great acclaim. She then marries Yitzhak, another talented performer, whom she keeps under her thumb. (His job includes sweeping the stage before a performance.)
The show consists of an unauthorized performance in a small venue, off-stage from a much bigger space where Tommy Gnosis is playing a successful gig. Between asides to Yitzhak and nuggets mined from lyrics, Hedwig tells the story so far and incidentally begins to disintegrate. At one point the other performers unwrap her silver bustier, and later on the black garment underneath, until at last she is almost naked, sans her lavish wig too. A true revelation.
Prins is an intense performer. She gives the songs' sometimes opaque lyrics an authenticity that convinces even when the words aren't too clear. (From "Midnight Radio," a song about rock 'n' rollers: "Breath Feel Love/ Give Free/ Know in your soul/ Like your blood knows the way/ From your heart to your brain/ Know that you're whole.") The problem with obscure lyrics: there isn't time to reexamine them on the page, as a reader would a poem; they pass by the listener like a loud train in the night, full of noise and empty of meaning.
Not only are the lyrics sometimes puzzling to the uninitiated, the combination of live musicians and amplification distorts or drowns out many of them. A pity. Sure, it's important to make rock sound like rock, but it's important to put over the words, and in the 200-seat Drury Stage, surely a better balance can be found? (The problem is partly that the producers get to know the words too well and can't tell that they're not clear to civilians.) The audience isn't always a collection of fans who get the record in advance and study the words until they know them by heart.
In the not-very-broad role of Yitzhak, Bargman shows subtlety and depth, especially in the passive-aggressive side of his/her relationship with Hedwig.
With all the drama going on on stage, the musicians show aplomb and precision. (Hillary Burns on drums, Zach Busch on keyboard, Alan Halverson on bass, Travis Phillips on guitars.)
The set (Lu M. Meinders) looks as if it has been dumped out of the back of the band's truck, in a good way. The lights (Zak Stowe), which include a lot of pulsing LEDs and sort of reverse footlights, keep the stage magic electric even when the lyrics are confusing or drowned out.
The costumes (Drake R. Lewerenz), especially for Hedwig, are a home run, for sure, starting with her fishnets and magnificent opening wig.
This Hedwig shows a clear line back to The Madness of Lady Bright. It shows a star disintegrate into a million droplets of mercury, brilliant and poisonous.
Hedwig and the Angry Inch runs through March 25, 2023, at the Bartell Theatre, Drury Stage, 113 E. Mifflin St., Madison WI. For tickets and information, please call 608-661-9696 or visit stageq.org.
Book by John Cameron Mitchell