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Saturday, February 24, 2024

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PerformanceStage ReviewHow to get a 'Hedwig' in queer theater

How to get a ‘Hedwig’ in queer theater

20 years in, the transgender rock chanteuse from East Germany inspires and provokes at Shotgun.

Whenever someone looks at a pop culture milestone and laments “God, I feel old!”, that’s often my cue to roll my eyes. I’m sure as hell not gonna say it here, but—as someone in that birthdate dead zone between Gen-Xers and Millennials—even I had to note how John Cameron Mitchell’s trans rock cult hit is over 20 years old now. The original stage version premiered the year I graduated high school, and the film version came out right after 9/11.

It’s been long enough since the debut of Hedwig and the Angry Inch (extended through December 17 at the Ashby Stage, Berkeley) that Shotgun’s current production features “A Modern Queer Glossary” in the program to illustrate the language we’ve developed in the past two-plus decades. The strides we’ve made for queer rights and trans visibility have come a long way, yet there are countless forces trying to push us back into the closets of the 1950s; or murder us in public, like in the 1650s.

Hedwig has always been a property I’ve respected more than outright liked. I’ve never seen it enough to memorize its songs, but I do dig them. It wasn’t instrumental in my realizing my own queer identity, but I’m happy for those for whom it was. Even though I’m not part of its cult fandom, I’m glad that said fandom exists.

For those not familiar, Hedwig (Pangaea Colter) is the transgender child of an American GI—the first of many men to leave our lead—and an East German mother. After the Iron Curtain falls, Hedwig searches for identity the now-capitalist-friendly Deutschland. Eventually, she falls for another American, who so loves her in her feminized attire that, with the full blessing of Hedwig’s mother, he forces Hedwig to fully transition. Things don’t all go to plan with the relationship or the surgery, leaving poor Hedwig with the infamous “angry inch.”

We learn this, of course, through Hedwig’s musical anecdotes performed as lead vocalist of the band The Angry Inch. As if the backstory weren’t tragic enough, there’s also the fact that Hedwig’s musical talent has been plagiarized by former-lover-turned-rock-star Tommy Gnosis. Now, Hedwig has little going for her besides the assistance of ever-put-upon companion Yitzahk (Elizabeth Curtis) and the adoration of we, her loving fans gathered at this grungy dive bar where the bar table doubles as the stage.

Elizabeth Curtis as Yitzahk in ‘Hedwig.’ Photo by Ben Krantz

Perhaps I visited too many dive bars in the pre-pandemic era (which has not ended), but I have to ask: did scenic designer Carlos Aceves base the look of this set on SF’s own Lucky 13? The resemblance is uncanny, right down to the upstage balcony (which is woefully underutilized; much like the upper levels of the set for Shotgun’s production of Passing Strange). Perhaps I just miss Lucky 13 too much, may it rest in peace, but even if it wasn’t a specific inspiration, Aceves’ design perfectly nails how comforting the familiarity of a dive bar can be. As such, this is another Shotgun set where audience seats are placed on the set itself, allowing Hedwig to break the fourth wall and interact with the gathered crowd.

And the crowd in question were a bit too reserved during the masked matinee I attended, something frequently remarked upon Colter-as-Hedwig. Most of the folks gathered were seniors, so the sustained, rock concert enthusiasm that defined Hedwig’s early days was a bit more sporadic during this performance.

Which isn’t to say the cast don’t commit to their roles. Colter clearly loves her time as the raconteur born before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Sometimes, she sinks a bit too far into Hedwig’s depression and has trouble reclaiming her joy, but one never gets the impression that Colter wants to be somewhere else. Still, the real stand-out is Curtis as Yitzahk, the former drag performer-turned-lover-and-confidante of Hedwig’s. Curtis says a lot through mere looks and gestures (and a moustache that suddenly disappears), telling the audience how Hedwig is using Yitzahk, knowingly or not, to continue a cycle of emotional abuse. And when Yitzahk isn’t quiet, Curtis’ iron-strong pipes bring down the house.

Shelley Doty of Skip the Needle and Pangaea Colter in ‘Hedwig.’ Photo by Ben Krantz

Of course, one would be remiss not to mention “the Black dyke rock band” Skip the Needle, who provide scene-setting tunes and vocals as Hedwig reminisces on the misadventures that brought her to where she is. The band, frequently hidden behind a curtain, never steal focus when seen, but they electrify the works with their very presence.

One forgets how short Hedwig is… as a show. It runs over 90 minutes, with only a quasi-intermission for the Shotgun raffle, and the gathered crowd (reserved though they may be) were pretty good about sticking to the show’s mask mandate. During that time, my Aranet4’s CO² readings seem to peak around 1266ppm before dropping to about 1202ppm by the end.

With more than two decades to look back on, my feelings on Hedwig haven’t really changed: I’m still not one of its hardcore fans, but I’m glad to know that it’s out in the world. With it having been extended, I hope that whatever local queer kid needs to find it does so. I hope that queer adults that loved it have a chance to reconnect with why. And I hope that whenever the property celebrates its next milestone, that the current dangers are on their way to becoming distant memories. 

HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH has been extended through December 17 at the Ashby Stage, Berkeley. Tickets and further info here.

48 Hills welcomes comments in the form of letters to the editor, which you can submit here. We also invite you to join the conversation on our FacebookTwitter, and Instagram

Charles Lewis III
Charles Lewis III
Charles Lewis III is a San Francisco-born journalist, theatre artist, and arts critic. You can find dodgy evidence of this at thethinkingmansidiot.wordpress.com

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