Art Spotlight

Outward Splral Theater stages gender-bendIng cult hIt

"I'm really up for this challenge,"Ann Michels said of her upcoming debut as Yitzhak, a sour former drag queen and road manager in Outward Spiral's "Hedwig and The Angry Inch," the off-Broadway hit opening at the Loring Playhouse February 14. The role marks Michels' first crossing of the gender barrier and is, she said, "by far the biggest stretch yet for me."

A rock musical, "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" is the tale of a transsexual rocker, Hedwig Schmidt, a Berlin emigrant who ends up living in a trailer park in Kansas when her sex-change operation is botched. The musical earned raves in New York and recently was made into a feature film.

Michels recently took a few minutes to talk about her role in this cult hit.

How did you get involved in this production? Frankly, I didn't know much about it at all. I hadn't seen the movie. I'd seen advertisements and thought it looked interesting. I had read a magazine article about John Cameron Mitchell [the writer] in "Elle." That was my first real experience with it, sitting in L.A. reading a magazine. A couple months later I got a call from Outward Spiral to audition for the role of Yitzhak.

Tell me about the role of Yitzhak. Though he doesn't say much, his presence adds an incredible amount to the tension. He's backup a singer in Hedwig's band. His story is that Hedwig and his band were touring around and in Zagreb, Croatia, and happened to see this drag queen who was reported to be the most famous drag queen in Zagreb, which I don't know if that's saying much! Her name was Crystalnacht and Hedwig became enchanted with her. Hedwig agrees to marry Yitzhak to get him out of this hell hole on the condition that he never wear a wig again. It's all about jealousy and suppression and oppression. Hedwig knows Yitzhak is more talented. The interesting thing is Hedwig is basically repeating what happened to him, which is that an American G.I. freed him from communist East Berlin then dumped him when the sex change was botched.

This is such a wild and complicated story. Why do you think it has become such a cult hit? The audience is just led through a panoply of emotions. You're laughing and thinking Hedwig is so charming, and the next moment you are so tense. There's a dramatic through-line. People think they will come for shock value, for the cross-dressing and gender-bending, but it's so moving and so much more than just "Rocky Horror Picture Show."

How so? So many people can relate to issues of abuse and co-dependecy, issues of lost dreams and betrayal, but yet find strength and love and beauty through communion with music. I think that's it: people can relate.

And do you relate to Yitzhak? I do in that she, I mean he--we have such trouble with pronouns in this show--longs to be Hedwig. That's the part Ann Michels can relate to. If someone were to try to take away music or performing from me, there would be a lot of bitterness.

It's called a "rock musical." How would you describe the music? The music is brilliant. Stephen Trask wrote the lyrics and music. John Cameron Mitchell, the writer, met him on an airplane and they struck up a friendship and decided to work on this project together. The lyrics are very smart. It's clever. It's not fluff, which a lot of people associate with musical theater. It's very David Bowie. It's so varied. There are hard punk rock elements and some are just these sweet ballads. There's a hoe-down song, just a wide variety that a lot of people will relate to. The lyrics catch you. People need to listen. I'm all about lyrics.

Changing genders must be a pretty big challenge. Yeah, it's a big leap. I'm used to singing with a band so that's not an issue. Yitzhak is very sour and very quiet physically. And, you know, Ann Michels is pretty exuberant in life! I talk a lot and laugh a lot and move my hands a lot. I didn't think about how girly I was because I was a gymnast and a fast-pitch player growing up, but I needed to stop moving my hips and using my hands. It's been a real challenge to physically manifest Yitzhak. I've been trying to observe, and guys keep giving me advice.

Like what? Well, just yesterday a man told me that when women check their watches, they use their opposite hand to pull up a sleeve, but men just punch their arm. Little things like that. It's amazing when you start thinking like that, but I'm up for it. I did fool somebody recently when we were performing with the band at Sursumcorda. We wanted to go out and show them who Hedwig and the Angry Inch were, and we had a phenomenal response. And somebody asked if I was a man or a woman. For me, that was the best compliment. I mean, I draw a beard on my face with eyeliner pencil, I put a bandana on my head and combat boots on my feet, but I'm still Ann Michels underneath.

Are you a singer, actor or both? I'm both a singer and an actor. I do both pretty equally. I sing with the George Maurer Jazz Group, and I sing opera and musical theater. But then I also do regular theater.

Are you surprised that this musical has become such a hit? No, because I expected something very different than what I got. I was just so enthralled when I first read it--with the relationships, the breakdown of a human being. I just believe in order for beautiful things to grow there has to be complete demolition and despair. And that's the sense that I got from Hedwig. I can relate to that.

Loring Playhouse Opens February 14-March 17 Tickets: 612-343-3390