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An innocent among the depraved

Citizen Staff Writer
Cover story



Rock ‘n’ roll theater lives up to its name in the Etcetera late-night production of “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” at Live Theatre Workshop.

Christopher Johnson in the title role looks terrific in his long tousled blond Farrah Fawcett-styled wig that has been stored on the shelf a little too long.

This wig is supposed to look that way because Hedwig has spent a long time working up enough anger to come out of the closet. Life has never been kind to this German lad, born on the wrong side of the Berlin Wall, deserted by his father, unloved by his mother and uncertain of his true gender. Then in adolescence his search for true love keeps ending in betrayal.

While “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” does not exactly follow in the wake of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” there are gender-bending similarities encouraging actors and audience alike to flaunt their indifference to polite behavior. “Rocky” made his screen debut in 1975. “Hedwig” opened off-Broadway in 1998, then appeared on the big screen in 2001 and became an immediate cult favorite of midnight movie fans coast to coast.

Some are calling “Hedwig” the new century’s “Rocky.” It could happen. “Hedwig” has a strong punk rock foundation and a stage look that’s only a few steps away from total depravity. Hedwig the female transsexual wannabe rock star is always played by a guy. Her male lover Yitzhak, in punk leather and face hair, is always played by a woman.

The past several decades of outrageous behavior by rude, rabble-rousing pop culture revolutionaries have created so much noise in the media, it has become exceedingly difficult for anyone to seem outrageous anymore.

Cross-dressing isn’t enough. Guys in stiletto heels snapping their whips? That is so Nineties. Same-sex couples in public in love won’t much do it, either. Kinky cross-dressing same-sex couples making love in pubic can hardly raise an eyebrow – unless there is violence involved.

So when John Cameron Mitchell created “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” he knew Hedwig had to come from a deeper, darker rock ‘n’ roll place than most people could imagine. At least, most straight people. That “Angry Inch” in the title refers not only to Hedwig’s backup band but also to Hedwig’s unfortunate body part after a botched sex-change operation. He didn’t become a female, and he was no longer a male.

That’s what makes him so perpetually confrontational.

But back to the Etcetera production. As written by Mitchell, with songs by Stephen Trask, the show is essentially Hedwig’s monologue delivered like a cabaret memoir. Johnson is tall and somewhat muscular, his character not the least bit effeminate. On opening night, wearing sparkly red high-heeled shoes, he held the attention of LTW’s packed-house audience, telling Hedwig’s sad life story.

It is an edgy performance, using double entendre as a weapon, drawing sympathy as Hedwig’s sordid lifestyle covers up a bravely innocent belief that somehow he will find the happiness that remains so elusive. Also onstage in derelict attire are a quartet of musicians: Nate Jasensky, musical director and guitar; Carlos Lopez, bass; Paul Tiller, keyboard; Michael Fay, drums.

Hedwig’s entrance sets the tone. In a dark theater he rises from the back row of the audience, acting a bit disheveled and makes his way to the stage as the band plays vigorously while the audience screams encouragement like they are at a wrestling match. In the spotlight, Hedwig holds the microphone tenderly.

“I do so love a warm hand . . . on my entrance,” he says with breathless timing. Moments later Hedwig adds that “when it comes to huge openings, many people think of me.”

Humor and sadness are provided in equal amounts, with room for some philosophical metaphors to accent the implication that all degenerates love rock music. Hedwig was born Hansel, his family living on the east side of the wall, when Berlin was a divided city. So very unhappy as a child, Hansel came to believe happiness would only be his when he found a soulmate.

So it was easy for Hansel to fall for an American soldier in Berlin, who promised to marry the teen if he would have the sex change operation that would satisfy the East Germans that the couple weren’t gay. Hansel has the operation, becomes Hedwig and moves with her husband to a trailer park in Junction City, Kan. When the disgusted husband realizes that because of the failed surgery Hedwig will never be a real woman, he dumps her.

Hedwig discovers a knack for writing rock songs, forms a band with her new lover, who takes the stage name Tommy Gnosis. Once dear Tommy becomes a rock star he dumps Hedwig, too. Now extremely bitter, Hedwig and her motley band begin following Tommy, who is playing stadium rock concerts while she only gets booked into tawdry restaurants near the stadiums. As Hedwig’s desperation grows, the rock songs become louder, harder and more desperate.


What: Etcetera presents “Hedwig and the Angry Inch”

When: 10:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays through Jan. 24

Where: Live Theatre Workshop, 5317 E. Speedway Blvd.

Price: $10 general admission

Info: 982-0169, livetheatreworkshop.org

Grade: B+

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