The cult musical, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, had its off-Broadway premiere 25 years ago. Written by John Cameron Mitchell, with lyrics and music by Stephen Trask, the show at that time offered a radical take on its titular character’s efforts to make whole an identity that never should have been split or restricted.
The question posed by the production when it hit the stage in 1998 pushed against conventional walls by asking who a person is or might become, despite being cornered and forced to start from polarizing binaries such as male/female, good/bad, strong/weak, inspired/crazed and other synonymic handcuffs.
Eventually adapted to film, the Obie Award-winning stage production went on to become a four-time Tony Award-winning Broadway hit, with actor Neil Patrick Harris starring in the premiere. The production also became a nationally touring show that opened in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Theatre in October 2016 before closing at the Kennedy Center in July 2017.
Richard A. Mosqueda directs Shotgun Players’ 2023 musically rich mounting of the 100-minute play, painting a broad sweep. The intriguing production is simultaneously contemporary, timeless, achingly relevant, and sweetly and harshly nostalgic. Viewing the play is like opening a time capsule and finding amidst the ancient remnants bursts of fresh air or the lingering scent of a lover’s skin.
Hedwig first splashes onto the Ashby stage as an “internationally ignored song stylist” who, between belting out show-stopping tunes, narrates a personal journey from an abusive childhood environment as girly boy Hansel Schmidt to an overlooked East German rock ’n’ roll figure. We learn that as a young adult, Hedwig underwent a failed sex-change operation—the “angry inch” refers to the genitalia that remains after Hedwig’s botched reduction.
Soon, Hedwig escapes Germany and lives a lie while dressed in drag in Kansas as wife to American soldier Luther Robinson. After getting divorced, Hedwig falls in love with and loses her hit songs to Tommy Speck, who abandons Hedwig out of disgust for “the inch” and absconds with their songs, later reaching megastar status minus his co-star.
To divulge the rest of Hedwig’s story—about how these ditch points elevate to a rousing extravaganza of celebration and life affirmation—would be a spoiler and ruin the surprise of the odyssey. Suffice it to say, having seen, sung about, experienced, survived and had sex with a lot of smut, Hedwig improbably rises to be a person unafraid to live a messy, fragmentary existence, just like the rest of us.
The Shotgun casting makes terrific use of the enormously charismatic Pangaea Colter (Hedwig) and the divine vocals and nuanced performance of Elizabeth Curtis, who plays Yitzhak, the Jewish drag queen who is Hedwig’s backup singer and husband. Their marriage is one of coercion and codependency, and the two fine local actors seldom lose the thread of that dynamic or tug on it in obtuse ways.
It’s clear, without exaggerating, that prior romantic relationships have burned Hedwig, and therefore she insists Yitzhak remain in the shadows. That tension adds snap to Colter’s fourth-wall-breaking monologues and is well played by Curtis, who earns sympathy but not pity with her subtle use of droopy body language, slouchy gait and bitter side glances.
It’s worth noting that if the text for Hedwig were simply to appear on the printed page, it would likely read as dated. It’s not so much that the story is worn out, but material that was groundbreaking more than two decades ago sometimes feels like well-trod terrain in modern times. Transformed through live actors with real-time voices, the play deserves kudos for lifting up an aged mirror and prompting people to gaze into the reflection and consider how far society has evolved—or not—in terms of attitudes and openness about gender identity.
Saving the best for last, representing the “fresh air” element and leaving this member of the audience to yearn during monologues and dialogues for the next song, was the Hedwig and the Angry Inch backup band. The all-queer, all-Black, local rock quartet—Skip the Needle—was stellar, a word that is not hyperbole when it comes to Oakland drummer/vocalist Kofy Brown, Berkeley bassist/vocalist Vicki Randle, Berkeley guitarist/vocalist Shelley Doty and Oakland guitarist/vocalist Katie Cash.
The Black women rockers are revealed when set designer Carlos Aceves’ graffiti-covered Berlin Wall “falls.” The band’s placement is meant to be a part of the backdrop that surrounds a U-shaped centerpiece catwalk and includes assorted dismembered mannequins, feather boas, oversized plastic bears and other kitsch. Even so, their performance is a commanding, completely front-of-the-stage presence that would have taken over the show, if not for Colter’s and Curtis’ well-matched vocal power.
Locking into Hedwig is all about the music, and these performers rock, funk, sing and play the bluesy, rhythmic, soulful, angry essence out of every beat and note. Highlights from the song list include “Tear Me Down,” “The Origin of Love” and “Sugar Daddy,” during which Colter’s ability to express volumes with a simple hip grind or the flip of a fringed skirt was notable and the band’s multiple talents undeniable.
Costume Designer Kip Yanaga and wig designs by Bobby Friday combined to good effect by being sparkly and leathery when it came to dresses and jackets, and frothy, multilayered and obligingly curly when it came to Hedwig’s many headdresses. Messiness and excess—unseen skin held tight by leather or let loose to show bra and underpants, blond tresses in all configurations, over-the-top skater-type skirts and a black rockstar gown—rarely looked so right in one place or on just two human bodies.
That description, “messiness and excess,” in some ways defines Hedwig and the Angry Inch without being binary. Finding a path to enduring life is messy. Being in relationships with other people is supremely messy. What makes the messy excess bearable is music—and sharing it in a community that includes top-tier Bay Area performers like those found at Shotgun.