Friday, July 18, 2003

Looking for the whole: Or was it the hole?

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Two souls, split by the gods centuries ago, must find each other to again become one. In Hedwig and the Angry Inch, one of those souls must search through himself, then herself, and ultimately in both to find peace.

Braden Chapman (producer, director, and actor playing Hedwig) and the cast and crew have transformed the ex-parish hall theater of the St. Lawrence into a rock-concert stadium, complete with video projection, two televisions, strobe lights, and a proscenium stage allowing direct contact with the audience. Two members of the crew sit in the front row, cheering and screaming to make the concert illusion more real.

The story is hilariously poignant, about a German boy, Hansel, whose mother flees to East Berlin as the wall goes up, raising him to believe that being powerless is better than being corrupted by power. Hansel seeks his soulmate and finds an American soldier who makes Hansel get a sex change before marriage, Oedipally taking his mother’s name and becoming Hedwig. After moving to America and divorcing, Hedwig becomes a rock star, and takes under her wing a spoiled, super-religious boy who rises to surpass Hedwig in stardom.

This show, a hit musical and movie worldwide, was adapted for Portland audiences, including a dig at Phoenix editor Sam Pfeifle’s music taste and a nod to the constant presence of Bobby Lipps, the St. Lawrence’s "best friend."

A reference to Hedwig’s attorney brings up — you guessed it — Joe Bornstein, including the jarring chord that always follows that name in the TV ads. Portland police chief Mike Chitwood also takes a hit, as Hedwig asks, "Are there no fascists in the audience?" Finding no audience support, she says, "I am sure I saw your police chief out there somewhere."

Chapman carries the show and even added a number of in-character ad-lib sections on opening night. When he slammed a door so hard the exit sign above it fell down, he immediately seized the opportunity to pitch the St. Lawrence’s fund-raising campaign: "They need your money, folks! It’s falling apart!" A German transsexual rocker with that kind of presence-of-mind would be invaluable on the St. Lawrence capital campaign.

And then, realizing that a missing exit sign violated the fire code, Chapman gave a brief safety lecture: "Two lights means ‘exit.’ "

Sadly, and perhaps as a result of on-stage audio monitor problems (the subject of yet another ad-lib) Chapman’s singing is almost completely drowned out by the musicians — particularly drummer Ryan Gill — who pound out their songs like any self-respecting punk band should. After a check of the lyrics online, it is clear my sneaking suspicion was true: Major plot events and character development occur in the songs.

This means the audience must wait through the music, knowing something is missing, and try to catch up when Hedwig speaks again. Perhaps this adaptation, which Chapman has so clearly immersed himself in and made his own, would have been even better if it was "unplugged" in the MTV style.

It is an unapologetic production from its opening words: "Ladies and gentlemen, whether you like it or not — Hedwig!" And as such, it does well, with hilarious costumes (recreated by the costume designer for the show’s 1998 New York debut), outrageous dancing, and thought-provoking questions like "Can two people actually become one, and if it happens on the Autobahn, can we still use the diamond lane?"

The audience is truly a part of this show, as at any rock concert. Chapman startles several people with brief, seated "cameos." He is outrageous and dynamic, making even the act of putting a microphone back on its stand sexual. And he carries off a key moment powerfully, when Hedwig smashes herself with tomatoes (under her shirt as fake breasts), marking herself with a scarlet symbol of betrayal.

As much as Chapman dominates, there is a character who acts as the foil for all of Hedwig’s plans. The barely recognizable Lynne McGhee (in long black wig, with a goatee), plays the Serbian Jew transvestite Yitzak, Hedwig’s second husband, who sings a bitter song of betrayal with sarcasm and power, and generally adds to the amusing mayhem on stage.

Hedwig and the Angry Inch
Written by John Cameron Mitchell. Music and lyrics by Stephen Trask. Directed by Braden Chapman. With Braden Chapman and Lynne McGhee. By the Glitterati Theatre Company, at the St. Lawrence Arts Center, Portland, through Aug. 3. Call (207) 775-5568.


• Nothing hurts more than abandonment, so shame on Michael Howard, director of Macbeth by the Stage at Spring Point, for not even showing up the day after the Phoenix panned the show. Was he crying in his beer or looking for a new job? If that’s how he treats his actors, cut him off from both.

The Food Chain, a farce about society’s idea of beauty, is back at Portland Stage’s Studio Theater from July 25 through July 27, at 8 p.m. Tickets are pay-what-you-can ($15 suggested). Proceeds will improve the Studio Theater space, including comfier seats! The show’s September run was among the Phoenix’s most memorable theatrical moments of 2002.

• The Camden Civic Theatre is accepting play and musical submissions from directors for its 2004 season. For more information, call Ron Hawkes at (207) 239-2092. Deadline is August 8.