A long time ago, back in the days of Roman baths and Grecian temples, there was a philosopher named Plato. You may recognize the name. Anyway, as you might know, Greek philosophers didn’t have a lot of science or clinical trials or history for that matter, to explain what was going on in their world. For example, lightning wasn’t comprised of a build up of protons and electrons, but the result of an angry Zeus up on Mount Olympus, throwing fire sticks at the puny humans below.
In regard to gender issues, as explained in Plato’s Symposium, a delightfully satirical and yet serious discussion on the nature of love, there were at first only people “globes” (I know, I know). These dual-faced, multi-limbed people-spheres, who pretty much wheeled themselves around like two naive kids who get stashed in a barrel and rolled down a hill, were two men, two women or a man/woman combination.
Well, these roly-poly types began to get on Zeus’ nerves because he felt they (and their sheer utter happiness) were impinging on his heavenly territory, so he chopped them in half, turned their faces around, stitched them up and had Osiris scatter them with a big forceful wind so the parts were lost to each other.
‘You Complete Me’
No, this isn’t just a line from “Jerry McGuire” or even the new Batman flick. It’s the origin of love. Plato finished his discussion by saying that we seek love because we are looking for our other half — be it man or woman. When we find that one person, we become people-spheres again. Complete. Whole. Yin and Yang. Take that, Zeus!
And this brings us to our tortured protagonist, Hedwig. With a botched sex-change operation in East Berlin, in which young Hansel goes under the knife to become a woman (although it’s unclear whether he actually wanted to become a woman or whether he just wanted to be able to marry legally and get out of communist Germany), Hansel takes his mother’s name, Hedwig, and is able to leave the country with Luther, a U.S. soldier. A break-up occurs, another attempt at coupling disintegrates … and it is at this point, as I am wont to say … that hijinks ensue.
You might want to dismiss Hedwig as, to use a favored “Project Runway” phrase, a “hot tranny mess,” and leave it at that. But look deeply into the core of this very successful mounting at The Jungle Theater, and you will find a gentle, wounded soul still seeking his (or her?) other half. And yet, how can this be? Left with the self-termed “angry inch,” Hedwig is neither really man nor woman, lacking the key components to define either sex. In his own words, he’s “a freak.”
Welcome to the Red Fez Grill
The Jungle Theater has truly been transformed into the Red Fez Grill, a Minneapolis dive bar, circa 1993, right across the highway from the Target Center. Why is it important that we are in the proximity of this attendance-grabbing venue? Because Hedwig’s ex-lover, Tmmy Gnosis (the one Hedwig believes completes him), is playing a sold out show that evening. Open the side door to the Red Fez and the cheers of the crowd and Tommy’s doped up rock star delivery eclipse any sound coming from Hedwig’s back up boand, “The Angry Inch.”
As I entered the theatre, I thought about “K2,” a 2007 mounting by the Jungle, in which the entire stage, designed by Joel Sass, became an imposing wall of ice and snow. For “Hedwig,” Sass triumphs again. “Well-hung and well-stuffed” animal heads dot the walls, neon beer signs, a linoleum-covered floor and best of all, a refrigerator, is tucked stage right for the generously-flowing libations to lube up the band throughout the intermission-free performance.
As Hedwig, Jairus Abts grabs the audience by the throat upon his entrance, ripping into “Tear Me Down” fearlessly. Hedwig’s wounds are not just physical; a lack of parental guidance and support, but especially, touch, has bruised him mentally as well.
Abts ably displays Hedwig’s tough veneer and then offers up hope and vulnerability, even an almost maternal side, as he sings “The Origin of Love,” in which Hedwig explains her thoughts about becoming whole through the love and acceptance of another.
Coming off like a dive bar Rebecca Romijn look-alike, Abts ad-libs with aplomb and wraps self-deprecating humor in pathos. His vocals are spot on and never waver. As Hedwig “becomes” Tommy Gnosis, stripping off the feminine trappings to resemble an almost Ziggy Stardust androgynous being during “Wicked Little Town,” she finds that by coming to terms with the ebb and flow of her life, she will be transformed; whole, all on her own. This allows others around him, namely his partner, Yitzhak, played by Ann Michels, the freedom to become their true selves as well.
I saw Michels in the 2002 Outward Spiral production of “Hedwig,” and knew what to expect. I was not disappointed in her revisit of this character. Michels, as Yitzhak, sulks around stage in a grunge-like Eddie Vedder persona: loving Hedwig, yet furious with the terms of their relationship. His eyes shoot darts; he seethes. At times, he cannot even look at the glamour queen standing next to him, closing his eyes as he takes her verbal abuse.
Michels’ voice is a joy to behold, clear, lush and strong — such a dichotomy springing from his sullen, beaten façade. Yitzhak blows during “Exquisite Corpse,” and what follows is a visually assaulting scene in which he trashes the stage while strobe lights flash. The scene isn’t long but feels like a lifetime, as the audience becomes enrobed in his violent outburst.
As Hedwig’s band, The Angry Inch, Michael Croswell, Tom Adams, Kyle Bonderson and Jay Walters look like a cross between members of Spinal Tap and an ’80s hair band. I’m not certain I cared for the look but as a band, they were extremely tight. I would have loved to see them doff their silly wigs during the finale … but I quibble.
With text by John Cameron Mitchell and lyrics and music by Stephen Trask, “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” is neither pretentiously self-aware nor old-fashioned musical. Part glam rock, part punk, with a dash of the free spirit imparted by musicals such as “Hair” and “Rent,” Hedwig explodes on stage with passion and hope.
I will close with this thought. I am the type of person who has no qualms about walking out of a show mid-performance. If I have to look at my watch even once during a staging, to me, the performers have not held up their end of the deal: holding me enthralled and in the palms of their hands, whisking me to another world for just a few short hours. So I will say this: the first time I even thought about getting out of my seat was during the finale, “Midnight Radio,” and that is only because I wanted to join the rest of the audience in their standing ovation. To cast and crew: I lift up my hands.
Go see it
“Hedwig and the Angry Inch” plays through August 31. Call 612.822.7063 for box office or visit www.jungletheater.com.