PARK CITY — Sometimes the word ‘revival’ when attached to a play can be synonymous with “been done before,” just like “re-boot” can mean “we fixed it.” Neither is true for Plan-B Theatre Company’s current production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch. This is Plan-B’s third go at the cult favorite, with the previous incarnations in 2003 and 2005 being bold, popular offerings from the company. But this third time is definitely a charmer.
If you are not familiar with Hedwig, you easily can be. Plan-B has always been innovative with marketing, often including Facebook events and a weekly blog featuring artists involved in upcoming production, and Hedwig seems to be everywhere. She was at Pride, on X96’s Radio From Hell Show, various news articles, and even has her own Twitter feed. This seeming over-exposure is not just clever publicity, but aligns with the exposition of this glam/punk- rock musical by John Cameron Mitchell (book) and Stephen Trask (music and lyrics). Hedwig, a transgender transplant from East Berlin, and her band, the Angry Inch, are on their national tour—landing in smaller venues conveniently down the street from big ticket arenas housing rock star Tommy Gnosis. Before the action of the play begins, Hedwig was arrested in the company of Tommy after an apparent DUI and has consequently been labeled a “mystery woman” by the press. This mirror tour of Tommy provides Hedwig the perfect opportunity to reveal all her mysteries and set the record straight—onstage and with music .
Originally conceived in drag clubs and punk venues during the 1990’s, the play itself is half rock concert half personal monologue. Stylistically, the presentation is similar to old Liza Minelli concerts told in vignettes featuring music from Kander and Ebb, yet it is far more sophisticated. The stage at the Egyptian Theatre in Park City has been outfitted to look like a cabaret stage. Huge speakers, bright lights, lots of haze, black tables and chairs in front of the stage, and a band set-up. Walking in, I knew it is going to be an experience. The band walked on stage to do a sound check and I was immediately thrown off balance. These performers had no set “look.” Rather, they are reminiscent of rock and roll history, yet did not clearly emulate one particular style. The individuality among the band members was as striking as it was disarming.
But then Hedwig entered and the ride began. The dialogue is fast and the jokes are dirty. The music is loud, gritty, and covers many genres. Hewig’s lyrics and jokes are steeped in philosophy, mythology, and acknowledgement that her situation is not a “normal” one. This is not a show that takes itself too seriously, which is honestly refreshing. I was able to sit back and enjoy my journey following Hedwig from East Berlin to Kansas, learning of love and loss, betrayal and acceptance.
Aaron Swenson doesn’t merely portray Hedwig, he embodies her. Hedwig is tangible as she follows bandying quips about world atrocities with emotional vulnerability and a slowly crumbling facade of control. Swenson manages to transcend gender as he tells Hedwig’s story “with all the wires showing.” We see everything as she interacts with her band, the audience, and recreates people from her past. We also see all of drag and punk history in moments of homage as Hedwig sings. There is the brazen bluster of Bette Midler in 1970’s bathhouses, hedonistic Liza at Studio 54, swaggering Jagger, wailing Suxiouxsie Sioux, and even naughty Dolly Parton, all with grimy soul worthy of Ramones’ era CBGB’s. The band gets in on the action as well. Each member is obviously extremely talented and without saying a word, the musicians who make up the Angry Inch convey world weariness, ambition, sadness, and concern for Hedwig as she teeters between mania, rage, and revelation. An especially lovely surprise is when band leader and musical director Dave Evanoff steps in to cover a song, strutting and crooning like an Iggy Popp/David Bowie hybrid. As the dynamic performances abound, Latoya Rhodes shines as Yitzhak, Hedwig’s androgynous ex-drag queen husband. (Yes, you read that correctly.) Rhodes’s voice is clear and warm, complementing Swenson in remarkable ways—even providing spot on strains of Whitney Houston when appropriate. A quiet fire of revolution roils off of Rhodes as Yitzhak endures Hedwig’s abuse and control, providing the main tension of the story. The push and pull between Rhodes and Swenson was mesmerizing as the two work together as the relationship deconstructs, leaving them both drastically changed.
I hesitate to share anymore of Hedwig’s story for fear of tainting the experience, because it really should be experienced. Contributing to that experience is the incredibly effective design team. An authentic venue set by Randy Rassmussen, slick projections from Greg Ragland, and subtle yet savvy lighting from Jesse Portillo that both highlights plot developments and provides rock and roll atmosphere. Costume design for this piece was an epic undertaking and Aaron Swenson doubled his duties and defied reason. Supported by R. Victor Salvidar’s wigs (an essential piece to this show) and Arika Schockmel‘s make-up design, Swenson’s design showed everything from Hendrix to Madonna, Lisbeth Salander to RuPaul.
The play’s cult status led some in the audience to treat the show like a Tower Theater screening of Rocky Horror Picture Show, complete with costumes and shouting lines along with performers. These “Hedheads” were at times annoying, but also added to authenticity and the performers were adept at rolling with it and keeping the vibe of a rock show fresh.
If you have seen the 2001 movie or the two previous productions, you might think you know what is in store. You’re wrong. This tenth anniversary production is completely and undeniably unique—just like Hedwig.