Photos by Na Eun Park
Oh, Hedwig. You Eastern German girlie-boy. You “internationally ignored singing sensation.” You lover of sequins, platform heels and brassieres so covered with metal spikes they look like weapons from Game of Thrones. You object of cultish adoration, you younger sibling of Dr. Frank-N-Furter. Hedwig, will you ever find your other half?
That’s the overwhelming question underlying “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” the glam-rock musical about an East German nightclub singer and victim of a botched sex change operation who’s on a tour of the United States. The show, which finished a run at the Oberon this week and will return to Boston around Halloween, is a gender-bending smorgasbord of innuendo, a homage to androgynous 1970s rock stars like David Bowie, and, at its surprisingly tender heart, a reminder of the importance of individuality and acceptance.
“It’s a unique show in that it’s a musical but it also speaks to people who aren’t fans of traditional musicals like ‘Annie,’” said producer Ben Skinner.
“It’s a punk musical but we thought it had an important message to bring to people. It’s really about embracing individuality….[it] is about embracing one’s sexual identity, which is really prevalent right now.”
The show is written as though the audience is witnessing one of Hedwig’s performances on her down-and-out tour around the country. Bolstered by her four-man band, Hedwig, played by JJ Parkey, sketches her woeful life story, from her upbringing as a little boy under the yoke of communism in East Berlin (her mother taught sculpture to children with no limbs; Hedwig listened to the radio in their tiny apartment’s oven); to the botched sex-change operation that left her with no hole and a one-inch mound down there (hence the eponymous “angry inch”); to her immigration to America, her doomed love affair with Tommy Gnosis, a Jesus-loving teenager and rock star aspirant who leaves her when he discovers her ambiguous sexual identity; and her subsequent tour around the country, shadowing Tommy’s far more successful tour where he performs a series of songs stolen from Hedwig (in the Hedwig-verse, Tommy performed at Fenway Park the same night as Hedwig’s performance at the Oberon).
Rose Tinted Productions is known for bringing performances to unusual spaces, and Parkey and company take full advantage of the set-up at the Oberon. During several musical numbers, Hedwig cavorts down the aisle, appears in the balcony behind the audience and even climbs on one of the tables for some wild gyration. The downside of the Oberon: the acoustics make hearing the lyrics difficult. You may want to download the soundtrack before going to see the show.
“Hedwig” is also a multimedia performance. Behind the band, images appear on a projector: childish illustrations of puzzle pieces as Hedwig laments her unluckiness in love; a picture of a swooping blonde wig as Hedwig describes the importance of her various hair pieces in her life.
Then there are the images of Berlin itself, of black-clad Germans watching impassively as a worker mortars bricks to create the Berlin Wall. Hedwig’s city of origin is an omnipresent part of her life; in a show about identity, Berlin becomes an extended metaphor. In the second song of the night, “The Origin of Love,” Hedwig spins a new take on Plato’s theory of the other half, which posits that the Greek gods split us in two at the beginning and we spend the rest of our life searching for our missing piece. Just as Hedwig believes all humankind was split in two, so was the city of her birth cruelly cleaved in half by unfeeling forces. And yet when the wall comes down, Berlin loses its identity, just like Hedwig loses hers when she is left with nothing but her liminal angry inch.
My best advice for Hedwig audiences? Drink.
If you’re not part of the cult before you walk in the door, you might need a bit of liquid courage to get there. Hedwig’s sequined picaresque journey is best enjoyed after you’ve let down your inhibitions and just decided to go with it. As the three actresses sitting next to me during the performance said, “Hedwig is an acquired taste.” I know I laughed more at Hedwig’s off-color jokes during the second act, after I hit the bar for a few libations during intermission. And besides, before strutting off stage at the end of Act 1, Hedwig promises to motorboat “whatever body part you desire” of the person who consumes the most vodka during intermission.
But behind its crude humor and glittery veneer, Hedwig and the Angry Inch has a real soul.
I felt twinges in my gut for Hedwig, when she paused to reflect on her lonely fate, and for Yitzhak (Ruthie Stephens), a Jewish Croatian nightclub singer in an abusive green card marriage with Hedwig. The play explores issues of sexuality, gender, androgyny and LGBT acceptance, but at its heart, it’s an oft-bleak story about love that I think we can all relate to.
And in case you missed it, don’t fret: you can catch the glitzy debauchery when Hedwig rolls back into Oberon around Halloween. Because of course.