Male-to-female transsexuals are easily accepted in our culture, as long as they 1) are always identifiable, preferably by their sparkly silver eyeshadow, 2) are truly morose and tormented, and 3) entertain us, at a distance. Girly-boys are still often seen as the ultimate gag (double meaning intended) -- monster/minstrels performing in femme-face, to the astonishment and giggly repulsion of the straight world.
From this perspective, the outwardly audacious rock musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch is about as subversive as The Brady Bunch, since it buys into all those cultural clichés. But while the politics of the script may be limp, this encore performance of Hedwig at Cleveland Public Theatre is nothing short of outstanding, thanks in large part to the galvanizing Dan Folino (as brash Ms. H) and a kick-ass band.
The conceit of the play is that rock-wannabe Hedwig and her backup sextet, the Angry Inch, are performing at a restaurant that's one in a chain of generic neighborhood eateries (as if Sizzler would book this genderfuck combo). Through flashbacks and reminiscences, we learn that Hedwig was really a gentle boy named Hansel Schmidt, an American pop-music addict living with his mother in East Berlin in the early '60s. Soon, a G.I. takes a liking to the willowy fellow, woos him with Gummi Bears, and convinces him to have a quickie sex-change operation, so Hansel can take his mother's name Hedwig and fly back to the States as the soldier's wife.
That's how Hedwig ultimately finds herself alone in a trailer park in Kansas, divorced and saddled with a "Barbie doll crotch" (actually, a one-inch stump left after her botched surgery). But she is not without a mission in life. Her onetime protégé and unrequited love, a guitar-strumming Jesus freak, has become the world-renowned rock icon Tommy Gnosis. And Hedwig has attached her band to the Gnosis tour like a deer tick, always playing gigs within earshot of Tommy's stadium venues, waiting for recognition and rewards as Tommy's "creator."
This plotline affords John Cameron Mitchell (author of the text and the play's original star off-Broadway) plenty of chances for double entendres. Hedwig following the applause for her first song: "I always love a warm hand on my opening." And some of Hedwig's recollections -- such as Mom making Hansel listen to his beloved Debby Boone and David Bowie music with his head in the oven, so she couldn't hear it -- are rich comic images.
But the core of Hedwig is the music, scored by Stephen Trask, who also wrote the lyrics. More than easy parodies of the Who, the songs stand on their own--although none of the tunes achieve the instant memorability of a "Pinball Wizard."
The show's most intriguing idea is expressed in Trask's compelling anthem "The Origin of Love." The song alludes to a story that Hansel's whacked-out mother once told him: "Back when the earth was still flat," humans were two-headed, four-armed, four-legged creatures, split apart by Zeus. These half-creatures -- what we call human beings -- were doomed to wander the earth in search of their missing halves. And the act of love is our "trying to shove ourselves back together" and become whole again. That's the journey Hedwig, and all of us, are on.
Philosophical musings aside, if you're looking for a way to give yourself or someone else some dandy goosebumps this holiday, get the hell over to CPT and experience Dan Folino as Hedwig. His singing, from ballad to hard rock, is full, vibrant, and emotionally complex. And he handles the comedic monologues with endearingly bitchy aplomb. Only during Hedwig's "poor me" laments does the energy of the production slightly lag.
Folino is well supported by a terrific rock band and Alison Hernan, who does a nice drag-king turn as the virtually mute Yitzhak, Hedwig's second husband. Director Lester Thomas Shane keeps this one-person tour de force sharply focused.
Oh, and as for real-life transsexuals -- it would be wise to take the Farrah-wigged, over-the-top Hedwig with the proverbial grain of salt. The many trannies in the world usually appear utterly normal -- even mundane -- and can be found in places other than nightclubs and trailer parks: say, working in the cubicle next to yours, or, um, writing a column in your weekly newspaper.
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