The Yale Summer Cabaret debuted its 2010 season with cult favorite Hedwig and The Angry Inch, text by John Cameron Mitchell, songs by Stephen Trask. Directed by Jesse Jou, artistic director of the Cab this summer, the working conceit of the piece is that we aren't watching theater but rather a rock band, The Angry Inch, led by Hedwig, perform in some dive. Between musical numbers, Hedwig regales us with tales of her life in an ongoing monologue -- and colorful, kinky, comical, disheartening and inspiring it is.
Hedwig began life as a boy named Hansel living in East Germany before the Wall fell. An American soldier named Luther falls in love with the "girlyboy" and in order for them to marry, Hansel, who adopts his mother's name and passport, also agrees to have a sex change operation to become female in fact. The operation is botched and Hedwig is left genitally indeterminate -- neither male nor female, a perfect character to explore the in-between manner of the transgendered.
As Hedwig, Chad Raines is phenomenal. His Hedwig is slyly insinuating, an introvert who has become an extrovert in self-defense. The special condition of Hedwig's sexuality is both a trial by error that makes her grimly ironic about fate, but also a badge of honor that gives credit to her tale. For this to work, Hedwig can't seem campy -- simply a guy in drag -- and Raines brings it off admirably. He gives Hedwig an aloof Dietrich air that can veer into Janis-like vocal lacerations at will.
The latter are fueled by the vulnerability of Hedwig's romantic attachment to Tommy Gnosis, a bigtime rock star whom she had an affair with in their youth (when Tommy was a repressed Christian in a Bible Belt trailer park), and whom she now trails about the country as he enacts musical self-celebration in huge arenas, performing songs Hedwig wrote with and/or for him. According to Hedwig, Tommy is her missing other half, separated from her à la Aristophanes' story in Plato's Symposium. The double whammy -- thwarted romance, thwarted career -- makes Hedwig a true rock diva, showing us the scars on her heart.
But our Hedwig is also cruel (the East German accent helps with that, ja) to herself and to her smitten assistant Yitzhak (Adina Verson), a one-time drag queen whom Hedwig insists wear butch clothing -- in this production, vintage Grunge. Yitzhak gets no spoken lines -- except for two 'unprintable' epithets directed at her lover/boss -- but Verson's eyes speak plenty as Yitzhak shares the limelight with Hedwig, providing powerful vocal backup, or cringes somewhere in the background as Hedwig confides -- or performs confiding -- in the audience.
The backing band kicks ass and theater-goers who aren't used to musicals that really rock may be somewhat taken aback. This is not a rock musical with songs cleaned up for the stage in Broadway's neutered idea of what rock sounds like. The Cab space is, appealingly, just the sort of basement venue Hedwig might be playing in the play's reality, and it's easy enough to feel like a spectator in a club, fascinated by a performer who lets it all hang out, even throwing tantrums at the band that may be real or may be staged, or both.
At the heart of it all is the girlyboy with the brittle wit, the belting voice, and an array of costumes -- the Ziggy Stardust get-up was a dead ringer -- that, like the songs, trigger glam memories and rock'n'roll dreams.
As the song by Spoon says: "when you don't believe, it shows, they tear out your soul / when you believe, they call it rock'n'roll."
I call this rock'n'roll.
Yale Summer Cabaret presents Hedwig and the Angry Inch; text by John Cameron Mitchell; music and lyrics by Stephen Trask; directed by Jesse Jou; music directed by Nathan A. Roberts; photo: Nick Thigpen
June 4th-19th 2010, 8 pm. (No performances on Sunday or Monday evenings.) Additional performance, June 12th, 11 p.m. To purchase tickets and for more information, please visit summercabaret.org or call (203) 432 1567