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“If you have candy,” says a bearded backup singer as the cast of Hedwig and the Angry Inch prepares to get raucous at the Signature Theatre, “feel free to open it during the show. We won’t hear it over the music.”
A few crashing chords later, Hedwig (Rick Hammerly) makes her entrance from the rear of the auditorium, resplendent in a silver porcupine-spiked bustier, black platform boots, and a leather skirt adorned with what appear to be plaid mudflaps. She wears a blinding amount of glitter (silver on eyelids, scarlet on lips), mascara to swim in, and a wig that looks like something Dolly Parton might don to visit the court of Louis XV—platinum Dynel waves crashing on a broad expanse of forehead, then cascading past shoulders swathed in black netting.
Hedwig knows full well she’s a fabulous creation, and she primps for a bit of extra adulation when the clapping finally stops—no mere burst of applause could ever satisfy her—and launches into a rock anthem called “Tear Me Down.” The song is a challenge, really. She’s been down, and she’s damned if she’s going back.
Her act, conceived by composer/lyricist Stephen Trask and librettist (and star of the off-Broadway original and the movie) John Cameron Mitchell, is a concert in which Hedwig alternately abuses and commiserates with her band, the Angry Inch, while answering the musical question: “How did some slip of a girly-boy from East Berlin come to be the internationally ignored singing sensation you see before you?”
The answer involves a head-in-the-oven childhood, a botched sex-change operation, marriage, divorce, trailer-park prostitution, and the mentoring of a teen rocker named Tommy Gnosis, who has gone on to perform Hedwig’s songs to sellout crowds across the river at RFK Stadium, while she’s stuck peddling a tabloid-style rock confessional in a former auto-bumper repair shop (“We are sooo rock ‘n’ roll here in Shirlington”). Her frustration is palpable, her anecdotes vividly dyspeptic, her anger sufficiently high-wattage to power a cross-country tour.
Hammerly, who wowed local audiences with his sensational Bette Davis in Me and Jezebel and his Helen Hayes-nominated Prior in both parts of Signature’s Angels in America, but who has been in a sort of self-imposed exile for several seasons, turns out to be as strong a singer as he is an actor. His vocalizing is rich and surprisingly nuanced as he flips from furious rants to affecting ballads, somehow managing not to turn the sweeter songs syrupy in the process. His Hedwig could be the love child of Dame Edna and Frank N. Furter—an uproariously brazen, un-self-conscious, ultimately vulnerable creature—and qualifies as a thoroughly striking performance in a role that was famously hard to recast when Mitchell left the New York production.
Eric Schaeffer’s persuasively grungy staging has Hammerly backed by a terrific, high-energy band, with Lynn Filusch a standout as the bearded Eastern European who might be said to be Hedwig’s butt-girl—and mirror image. James Kronzer’s tumbledown nightclub setting, Chris Lee’s in-your-face rock-concert lighting, and costumer Anne Kennedy’s thrift-store-style S&M duds are all ideal, as are the neon-hued, chalk-drawn projections with which Michael Clark illustrates Hedwig’s gentler numbers.
Last year’s unjustly neglected film version—critics generally crowed; audiences stayed away in droves—worked a few clarifications on the plot line and upped the ante visually in clever ways, especially at the story’s end, which is a trifle vague on stage. Still, Schaeffer and Hammerly save a neat coup de theatre for their final image—one that had the comparatively staid, suburban audience at the preview I attended cheering as if transsexual trailer-trash rock stars were as all-American as New York firemen.
Before we get too giddy about how mature and understanding we’re all becoming, however, let’s remember the controversies that have dogged Corpus Christi, Terrence McNally’s retelling of the Christ story in contemporary Texas.
The element that has stuck in the craw of some ideologues is that McNally imagines his modern miracle worker and some of his followers as gay and sexually active. At the New York premiere a couple of years ago, this seemed downright incendiary to a cadre of mostly Catholic protesters (who began condemning the play before anyone had seen it), and also to editors at the Washington Times (who forbade critic Nelson Pressley to review the show, pretty much forcing his resignation). Currently, of course, Catholics are preoccupied with a home-grown sex scandal consuming enough that they may not have the time or inclination to get too hyper about the theatrical variety. In any event, Corpus Christi’s retelling of the Western world’s most familiar tale turns out—at least in its slightly-revised-from-B’way local incarnation—to be no more nor less irreverent than Godspell’s, which pictured Christ as a clownish hippie in a Superman shirt and was almost universally embraced by Christian organizations.
P.J. Paparelli’s staging at the Source Theatre features 13 barefoot, bluejeaned young men playing McNally’s Christ figure and his disciples. Each steps forward at the evening’s ritualized outset to be baptized as an apostolic character, then takes on various other roles as necessary—of an abusive young redneck named Joe, for instance, and his virginal wife Mary, who show up at a Texas motel, wondering what to call the baby she’s so obviously expecting.
“Jesus” sounds too Mexican to Joe, so they settle on “Joshua,” and in subsequent scenes, the tyke grows up, inept at contact sports but adept at defusing squabbles, and with a real flair for turning the other cheek. By prom night at Pontius Pilate High, Joshua has hooked up with a leather-jacketed roughneck named Judas, and…well, you get the drift.
The story plays out both sweetly and with humor under Paparelli’s aggressively imaginative direction, which makes clever use of limited props and a nearly bare stage. Sean McNall’s Joshua looks a bit like Michael J. Fox and possesses a boyish guilelessness mixed with intelligence. The supporting cast is energetic and reasonably resourceful about delivering McNally’s vernacular parables in a manner that sounds casual and unaffected. The show doesn’t amount to much more than a general plea for religious tolerance, along with a staking of a gay claim to the story of the Passion. The language is frequently coarse, the humor bawdy on occasion, but McNally is reverent enough in his approach to bypass plenty of opportunities to camp things up, and Paparelli follows suit.
That said, as the reactions to the films The Last Temptation of Christ and Hail Mary established, puritanical notions run deep in contemporary society, and there’s inevitably an outcry when an artist depicts a sexually active Christ figure. Those who find that notion troubling should probably avoid Corpus Christi, but for the rest of us, the only indulgence required at the Source Theatre is a certain tolerance for parable. CP