Friday, January 5, 2018

Zach & Zack continue their blend of spectacle and dramatic insight with 'Hedwig and the Angry Inch'

Tim Hunt as Hedwig commands the stage.
The expansion of perspective that theater offers is a stretch that comes close to snapping at times. It can amount to extreme yoga of the soul. That's how "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" struck me when I saw it for the first time Thursday evening in a Zach&Zack production.

The sometimes strident but at length heartbreaking musical by John Cameron Mitchell and Stephen Trask runs weekends through Jan. 14 at the Hedback Corner Theatre, home of the long-running Epilogue Players, a company claiming "a special regard to the inclusion of the senior members of our community."  So I was more in tune with the venue than the vehicle last night. Nowadays everyone is gingerly about calling old people old. In the spirit of the full exposition of personal identity in "Hedwig," I embrace it. So here's an old, cisgender, straight white male's take on the show.

Its peculiar charm owes much to how well the production team works together to put the glitz and the pathos on an equal footing. Headed by director Zack Neiditch and producer/sound designer Zach Rosing, the small army of skillful designers, builders, managers, operators, and so on sets this production on a first-class level. What a way to get 2018 theater in Indianapolis off the ground and soaring!

Glam rock to the max: Hedwig and the Angry Inch   
Visual stimulation is constant, from the seven (did I count 'em all?) TV screens conveying "housekeeping" info at first, then supplemented by cameos by a couple of well-known local actors not in the cast to acclimate the audience to what they are about to experience. Matthew Ford Cunningham's lighting has a rhythm and color all its own, both angled and blindingly direct. Hedwig's band, sporting bizarre character names but no spoken lines, is a constant presence. Its sound enters and goes out in blazes of glory, under the musical direction of keyboardist Jacob Stensberg.

Hedwig is a struggling entertainer adjusting to U.S. life after an escape from East Germany that required a sex-change operation, whose failure puts him/her in perpetual sexual limbo. The rock drag-queen persona adopted as a result is witty, angry, and morose in well-defined autobiographical monologues between songs. In the title role, Tim Hunt, his eyes flashing and glitter-lipsticked mouth pouring forth confidences, anguish and quips, wins the audience over immediately. The role requires an illusion to be placed firmly upon a basic illusion — one keyed to the character's difficult survival. This layering was acute in Hunt's performance, across a well-managed spectrum of intimacy and flamboyance.

The other key role, mostly silent except for some crucial singing that graduates from back-up at the show's climax, is that of Yitzhak, Hedwig's husband. Given glowering overtones of resentment in Kate Homan's performance, Yitzhak is a former drag queen commanded to abandon minor-league stardom in order to accompany Hedwig and assist her show as prop master, dresser, and supporting vocalist.

The tension between Yitzhak's grudging loyalty and Hedwig's authoritarian flair played out richly until the latter's breakdown near the end, making the show's end obliquely uplifting. The turn of events was aptly piercing at the preview I attended, as was Hedwig's chafing alliance with Johnny Gnosis (also a vivid aspect of Hunt's performance), an arrogant rock star whose songs, stage name, and self-confidence she had supplied uncredited.

Hedwig's physical sacrifice carries historical irony in that the wall dividing East from West Berlin came down after the mutilated entertainer had fled to the West as the wife of a man who soon abandoned her. I saw the divided city just a few years after the wall went up. The common identity of the people on either side didn't matter; their actual lives and surroundings were entirely different.

I remembered this while listening to "The Origin of Love," Hedwig's song drawn from the notion in Plato's "Symposium" that the human race had been split from its original genderless unity —  a myth wonderfully rendered in this production by Michael Runge's animations as Hunt sang. Everyone is seeking wholeness once they become aware of being incomplete, whether the cause is natural or artificial. This is Hedwig's story, and to some degree it's also the story of anyone seeking love and a life of integrity. "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" is thus more universal than it seems at first blush. Bring on that soul yoga!

[Photos by Zach Rosing]