The Intensity is Sometimes Lacking in 'Hedwig and the Angry Inch' at Blank Canvas Theatre

The Intensity is Sometimes Lacking in 'Hedwig and the Angry Inch' at Blank Canvas Theatre
Photo by Andy Dudik

Hedwig and the Angry Inch

Through June 23 at Blank Canvas Theatre, West 78th Street Studios, 1300 West 78th St., 440-941-0458.

It's too bad that humans didn't really evolve as they were imagined in one of the Greek myths. According to that yarn, humans were originally endowed with four arms, four legs and two faces. If the Cavs had started five such players, averaging over 6-foot-8 in height, they might have had a chance against the Golden State Warriors.

But no, the primo god Zeus messed up that plan when, after observing those multi-limbed creatures and being very afraid of their power, he split them in two. Thus were created the two-armed, bipedal, single-faced humans we have today: people who feel fragile, lonely and sense they are missing a vital part of themselves.

In the 20-year-old Hedwig and the Angry Inch now at Blank Canvas Theatre, John Cameron Mitchell (text) and Stephen Trask (music and lyrics) take that idea and turn out perhaps the best premise-setting song in any musical ever. "Origin of Love" recounts that Greek myth, as referred to in Aristophanes' speech in "Plato's Symposium." And it serves to introduce this rock musical about a "slip of a girly boy" who doesn't feel whole and is looking for his other half — as we all have been, ever since we were cleaved apart.

That search results in Hedwig's botched sex change surgery (now referred to politely and more accurately as a "gender confirmation" surgery), and the play is off and running. Well, trotting, in this case. While Devon Turchan, who plays Hedwig, is supremely talented, and director Alison Garrigan is a master of staging various kinds of theatricals, this production never finds its groove. And that's a damn shame, since Hedwig still has things to say about gender identity and identity in general.

The conceit of the show is that we're watching a performance of the gender-fucked Hedwig, who was born Hansel in East Berlin. As a young man, he meets and falls for American soldier Luther Robinson, who convinces Hansel to dress in drag and eventually submit to the surgery so they can be married and move to the States.

Thus, as Hedwig relates between songs in his set, Luther leaves him alone in a trailer park in Kansas. And Hedwig goes on a campaign of creation. First, she turns herself into a rock singer backed up by her four-piece band, the Angry Inch, named after her closed-up Barbie doll crotch. She also creates another entity, turning the shy, Christian, guitar-strumming teen Tommy Speck into the ego-maniacal rock star Tommy Gnosis.

Hedwig is certain that Tommy is her other half, but Tommy isn't interested as his career soars. So Hedwig is forced to follow along Tommy's tour — picking up tiny gigs within earshot of the stadiums where Tommy is massaging his massive ego — waiting for her super-famous masterpiece to give her some credit.

There is plenty of wicked humor and kick-ass rock music in this script and score, and the BCT production handles the musical end of its duties well enough. The band under the direction of keyboardist Bradley Wyner is suitably loud and on point. And Turchan works hard to make the songs sizzle, especially on "Sugar Daddy," his ode to Luther, and when he relates the details of his doomed surgical procedure in "Angry Inch."

Some of the more mellow songs ("Wig in a Box," "Wicked Little Town") fare less well, as Turchan has a tendency to lose the Hedwig edge and go a little Debby Boone, getting all weepy-eyed and soft.

As for the spoken word sections that separate the songs, they are often slowly paced and lacking in intensity. This is particularly odd, since Turchan can be a compelling performer and Garrigan knows her way around this show, since she has acted in it and directed it elsewhere.

We should be watching a tormented person bare her soul on the little stage, and gradually deconstruct herself in the process. Instead, the songs are performed and then Turchan takes a break, sauntering over to a side table now and then to meander listlessly through the monologue sections. This drains the intensity and momentum from the piece — and those are the very qualities that should make Hedwig take flight.

The situation isn't aided much by Claire Twigg, who plays the virtually mute Yitzak, Hedwig's second husband. It's a tough role, since Hedwig is constantly putting Yitzak in his place, physically and otherwise. But when Hedwig finally gives him a chance to recover his identity as a drag queen, the moment of revelation and triumph is muffled.

Theatrical productions, even loud and bombastic ones such as Hedwig, are delicate creatures. And sometimes, even wonderfully talented parts don't come together as they should. One hopes that this version of Hedwig finds its other half during the run and delivers the intense experience it should.

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About The Author

Christine Howey

Christine Howey has been reviewing theater since 1997, first at Cleveland Free Times and then for other publications including City Pages in Minneapolis, MN and The Plain Dealer. Her blog, Rave and Pan, also features her play reviews. Christine is a former stage actor and director, primarily at Dobama Theatre...
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