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Motorik drum beats from bands like Neu! and Can fill seats at Olney Theatre Center. These stalwarts of what the British press dubbed “krautrock”—a diverse collection of West German counterculture artists of the ‘60s and ‘70s—help set the scene for Hedwig and the Angry Inch. As does the stage, decorated by scenic and costume designer Jacob A. Climer, which looks like a haphazard collection of instruments, lights, statuettes of the Madonna, and a banner made from an old mattress pad. Musicians take the stage dressed in anti-fashion rock ‘n’ roll garb, lest anything distract from the entrance of Hedwig (Mason Alexander Park) in platform heels and a soon- to- be discarded glittery hazmat suit.
For those only familiar with the 2001 film adaptation by the musical’s co-creator John Cameron Mitchell, they might be surprised that the original stage show of Hedwig and the Angry Inch takes place in real time, over the course of a single performance. Glamrocker Hedwig is consumed with resentment for her former lover and protégé, Tommy Gnosis, who failed to properly credit her songwriting and conceptual genius, which launched his budding career. As luck would have it, Gnosis is headlining a larger nearby venue—his music is heard each time the stage doors open. Hedwig, trying not to have an emotional breakdown on stage, recounts her life. Park, fresh from Netflix’s live-action adaptation of Cowboy Bebop, has played Hedwig before in a 2017 touring production and is attuned to the character’s mood-swings and the tension within the singer’s stage persona.
Despite topical references to COVID and the Trump administration in the current production, Hedwig’s story, shared between songs, is firmly set in the era of its 1998 off-Broadway premiere. Hansel Schmidt was raised by an emotionally distant mother under the communist-run police state of the German Democratic Republic secretly listening to American rock music on Armed Forces Radio. Young adult Hansel, a recently dismissed philosophy lecturer, meets and falls in love with a U.S. army sergeant stationed in West Berlin. In an era when homosexuality was still grounds for immediate discharge from military service it was acceptable for a cisgender man in the service to marry a trans woman and bring her back to the States. The glam rocker-to-be is pressured into a botched back alley surgery resulting in said “angry inch.” A year later, Hedwig is divorced, and the Berlin Wall has fallen. She forms a band of East Europeans of questionable immigration status: Schlatko (Manny Arciniega) Krzyzhtoff (Jaimie Ibacache), Jacek (Jason Wilson) and Skszp (Christopher Youstra, who also serves as musical director) and back-up singer, dancer, stage crew, and suffering second husband Yitzhak (Chani Wereley).
Discussions of gender and performance have also changed radically since 1998: Drag performers, transgender characters—and their stories (sometimes, but not often enough performed by trans actors)—now appear on popular television shows. Theaters in the DMV both large and small (Arena Stage and Avant Bard both come to mind) cast trans actors in cis roles. However, Hedwig’s creators Mitchell and songwriter Stephen Trask, are quick to point out that Hedwig is not transgender: Her surgery is coerced, and done for others’ convenience, not to become who she is. Rather Hedwig is genderqueer, sometimes one, sometimes the other, sometimes both, sometimes neither.
Trask’s songs sound like rediscovered classics from the apex of glam rock, whose stars eschewed authenticity for theatrical personae that were often sexually, morally, and politically ambiguous in their presentation. Despite Hedwig’s snarky jokes about how her life as a glam rock singer is just an extension from sex work, Mitchell writes monologues that portrays someone so traumatized that they can neither love as they want nor accept love when given.
Patrick Lord’s projections make use of Cold-War era archival photos, propaganda, and editorial cartoons. The images also provide a lovely, animated backdrop for “The Origin of Love,” Hedwig’s lyrical retelling of the speech of Aristophanes in Plato’s Symposium, in which the ancient Athenian satirist affirms true love is finding one’s other half exists for all sexualities. This imagery would become a staple of esoteric speculation ranging from Jewish midrashic tradition to various schools of Hermeticism and Gnostic sects. (The name “Gnosis” is no coincidence.)
As much as Hedwig plays on audience sympathies, she is not kind. The Olney run began during the eight night festival of Hanukkah, and director Johanna McKeon smartly placed an electric menorah next to the bucket seat where Yitzhak retreats when not needed, underlining how much Hedwig’s contempt for her husband is steeped in antisemitism. It is not enough that Yitzhak had to give up his own career as a drag performer to play a supporting role in Hedwig’s nightly recap of her previous relationships. Hedwig clearly believes that Yitzhak, a Croatian Jew, should feel fortunate to be married to an Aryan German whose grandfather served in the SS, and expects the audience share her disdain. It’s certainly a feeling many Jews experience when trying to gain acceptance in a gentile world, and undoubtedly an experience that Trask, who is both Jewish and genderqueer knows first hand. Consider how many high-profile rockers (Pink Floyd, Motörhead, Siouxsie and the Banshees, The Dresden Dolls, and David Bowie‘s Thin White Duke character, to name just a few) have made use of real or ersatz fascist and Nazi imagery for shock value.
For all the nostalgia a nearly quarter-century old musical might inspire, Hedwig is still an edgy, subversive rock’n’roll show.
Hedwig and the Angry Inch, directed by Johanna McKeon, runs through Jan. 2 at Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney. olneytheatre.org. $59–$85. All performances through Dec. 24 have been cancelled. Performances will resume Dec. 26.