There is, quite possibly, no better way to kick off Pride Month than with Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati’s just-opened production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, the 1998 Rock musical by John Cameron Mitchell with music and lyrics by Stephen Trask.
The most obvious reason is the subject matter. Hedwig is the story of Hedwig Robinson, a genderqueer would-be Rock star who has seized upon 15 minutes of fame with rocker Tommy Gnosis, who has gone on to fame while Hedwig has been left behind.
Todd Almond played the role at Ensemble in 2001 and 2003, and he’s returned to tell her story to us, candidly and unapologetically, with emotional vulnerability peppered throughout. Hedwig is filled to the brim with raunchy jokes and off-the-cuff quips to the audience. And it features “The Angry Inch,” the band that includes Hedwig’s husband Yitzhak, a Jewish drag queen played by surly but soulful Beth Harris.
As Hedwig follows Tommy Gnosis’ tour, performing in an adjacent (and vastly smaller) venue, she details an unhappy childhood on the East side of the Berlin Wall. She grew up as Hansel Schmidt, the “slip of a girlyboy” who lived with a cold and emotionally distant mother, impregnated then abandoned by an American soldier stationed in East Germany.
Hedwig describes finding solace and inspiration in western Rock music as a young boy. Hansel soon developed a longing to find his “other half,” a concept detailed to him through a story told by his mother. The song “The Origin of Love” is a watered-down version of Aristophanes’ speech in Plato’s Symposium. When American soldier Luther Robinson offers his love and an escape to America, Hedwig’s dream slips into focus.
But not long after, Hedwig is the victim of a horrifically botched sex reassignment surgery. Divorced and penniless, living in a trailer park in Kansas, it’s the exact opposite of the American Dream.
Hedwig is a complex character. It feels wrong to refer to her as transgender. Not because of her “angry inch,” but because 2018 offers so many more terms for people to describe themselves to the world. Hedwig feels more like a genderqueer Punk rocker — someone who does not identify exclusively as a man or a woman — and who loves herself for exactly who she is, angry inch or not, wig or not, bra or not.
From the moment Almond takes the stage as Hedwig, this self-love is evident. Almond is massively tall, towering above the other performers onstage, in or out of heels. But physical height or not, Almond brings a gargantuan presence to Hedwig. She feels no need to insert herself into any moment; she has already filled the space with her personality and physicality. She is sexy, exuberant, devastated and introspective all at once. Almond brings all this and more to the stage, overflowing with true underground rocker energy. Almond makes Hedwig’s story completely enthralling, and leaves audience members leaning forward on their seats, desperate to learn more about this fascinating character.
Hedwig the show is a radical Rock concert, from beginning to end. With the graffiti splattered remnants of the utilitarian Berlin Wall as the backdrop (designed by Brian c. Mehring), watching Hedwig feels like witnessing a little-known band on the cusp of international stardom play a small basement Punk show. Mehring’s lighting design complements the music in a way that elevates Almond’s Hedwig to the next level. Hedwig feels like a true ’80s Punk Rock show, from costuming and lighting to the music and monologues. Ensemble’s small space lends an essential intimacy to the production. You see Hedwig’s every facial expression and her every move, from shoulder twitch to wig flick. When she sings the climactic "Midnight Radio," asking the audience to "lift up your hands," almost everyone complies.
There’s something profoundly special about watching Todd Almond’s return to this show at Ensemble after 15 years. Hedwig is just as wild and unapologetic, but wiser and more contemplative. Her reflective moments are more sincere, which makes her final transformation even more poignant. Hedwig’s story stays with you and imparts a sense of pure wonder. Hedwig is a celebration and a revelation, and it rocks. Hard.
Hedwig and the Angry Inch, presented by Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati, continues through July 1. Tickets/more info: ensemblecincinnati.org.