Review: Hedwig and her Angry Inch visit SPACE

Beautiful anger
By MEGAN GRUMBLING  |  May 18, 2011

theater_hedwig_main
HUSBAND AND WIFE Hedwig and Yitzhak, rock stars.

A captivating, flippant, and shockingly wigged chanteuse will be holding court at SPACE Gallery over the weekend. Slipping effortlessly between songs, philosophical musings, comedy, and show-biz dishing, she will tell all: Her formative years as a boy named Hansel in East Germany, spent singing into the oven and swooning over "crypto-homo rockers" Lou Reed, Bowie, and Iggy. Her deflowering by an American soldier bearing Gummi Bears. Their plans to marry and move to America, which are contingent upon a procedure that will cost Hansel a given name, a gender, and a certain sensitive part of the anatomy. She is left with a name and an affliction that together have spawned an international cult following: Yes, it's Hedwig and the Angry Inch, the 1989 rock musical by John Cameron Mitchell and Stephen Trask, which Zany Hijinx Productions brings to SPACE in a tight and explosive show.

In Mitchell's glam-rock musical, which predates the 2001 film, Hedwig (the virtuoso and deliciously droll Gene Dante) regales us with her history, torch songs, and wry asides in one extended monologue, much in the manner of a classic nightclub act of old. Fronted by her hard-rocking band, the Angry Inch, and her sidekick-cum-husband Yitzhak (Lisa van Oosterum), Hedwig is playing in dive bars across the country as she shadows the tour of her lost love, the rock superstar Tommy Gnosis, whom she nurtured into being from the raw material of a misunderstood Kansas teenager named Tommy Speck.

The text of Hedwig's storytelling and stage patter is exquisitely witty, filled with snarky puns (her agent is named Phyllis Stein), topical references (including an analogy involving Paul LePage with a bleach job), and outrageous expository concoctions (Hedwig discovered Yitzhak in Croatia, billed as "The Last Jewess in the Balkans" and singing selections from Yentl under the name Kristal Nacht). But beneath her laconic edge, Hedwig also has an affecting emotional and philosophical depth, and the script's repartee shares space with reflections on love, division, and unification, from allusions to Plato's Symposium to the recurring motif of the Berlin Wall.

And Dante's delivery of all this, song and story alike, is just arresting — his voice is knock-out and his charisma utterly engrossing. I could spend hours putting back beers and listening to his Hedwig endearingly wax laconic. As Hedwig's husband, back-up singer, factotum, and general whipping boy, van Oosterum performs beautiful vocals and has an understated hilarity, conveying in the set of her be-stubbled jaw Yitzhak's resigned irritation with his man/boss.

Production elements are simple in concept, confined to SPACE's stage (with the exception of a little audience lap-surfing, as well as images at one point projected on the wall stage left), lighting, and sound system. But these simple elements are smartly designed and deftly executed, and come together to dazzling effect, which is heightened by the intimacy of SPACE's small stage and close seating. And as for the music, the show's youthful four-piece band playing the quintessence of glam-rock and punk is an awesome phenomenon. Though they comically deadpan their way through Hedwig's tunes, their energy is raucous, and they careen us through these familiar styles with affection and expert dexterity.

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