This is hardly the place to get excited about gender inclusion. Gender-swapping has been in vogue in theater since ancient times, though born of legal necessity. Back in Shakespeare’s day and before, it was against the law for the so-called fairer sex to set foot on a stage.
One needs only glance at Broadway’s recent gender-bent Company, in which Bobby-baby became Bobbie-girl, to appreciate how retooled casting can energize ticket sales.
But at a time when trans Americans are under assault — from clubs to courts, literature to legislation — Dominion Stage’s refreshing casting in Hedwig and the Angry Inch, in which a trans man plays the titular nonbinary character, represents a twist whose time has come.
Long story short: Hedwig traces the laments and longings of an East German punk rocker, a “girlie-boy,” transplanted to a Kansas trailer park after their own experiment in gender-bending goes horribly wrong. Born Hansel Schmidt, they fall for a sugar daddy who insists they undergo an underworld penectomy, leaving them with a “Barbie doll crotch” — one angry inch of flesh. (Hey, I played naked Barbies as a kid, and I think what we mean is more of a Ken-doll nub, but why quibble?)
Hansel Schmidt transforms, assuming their mother’s identity and name, Hedwig; dons an actual wig; and takes their husband’s last name, Robinson, which, amusingly, is an Urban Dictionary nickname for someone whose johnson is smaller than 3 inches, but we won’t go there. Later, they fall for a piece of trailer trash, Tommy Speck, who feeds off their creativity, steals their music, and becomes the mega-star they never were, rebranded as Tommy Gnosis — which sounds like a disease but derives from the Greek word for “knowledge,” as in having nibbled on the Tree of Knowledge and actualized one’s self-awareness.
It’s a lot to unpack. The groundbreaking, heartbreaking musical, which premiered off-Broadway on Valentine’s Day 1998, also made a star of its creator, John Cameron Mitchell (who wrote the book; music and lyrics by Stephen Trask). Mitchell adapted, directed, and reprised his title role in the 2001 movie — but don’t watch it, as it casts a separate actor as Tommy, which is not right. On stage, Hedwig and Tommy are flip sides of the same coin.
Faithfully directed by Danielle “Danni” Guy, Dominion Stage’s production preserves the architecture of the work while placing at its cornerstone a delightfully off-kilter Cam Shegogue. Shegogue bursts forth in tulle tutu and freak flag, like a punk ballerina flung off the spindle, true to all the Hedwigs come before in outlandish costumes (Anna Marquardt) and carnivalesque makeup (Maurissa Sosa). What’s different is their halting bravado never quite masking a need for approval, a continual toying with the hair, less brashness, and more graciousness, which engenders this Hedwig with maximum tenderness and soul.
After all, at some level, Hedwig represents a victim of abuse who ends up mistreating their husband, Yitzhak, as they were mistreated, by stealing the spotlight and suppressing their true identity. Standing off-stage in the corner much of the time, Vanessa Bliss embodies the dopey, downtrodden Yitzhak as a late-night sidekick — an Andy Richter to Shegogue’s Conan O’Brien. Rather than scream “raunchy drag show,” their dueling standup repartee unfolds as a thoughtful confessional, with the ever-hopeful Hedwig quoting treacly pop songs of their adopted country and Yitzhak striving to break the cycle of abuse.
Vocally, Bliss refuses to stay in her lane and proves the material is not robust enough for her fabulous belt — or dowdy suspenders. Shegogue also showcases an impressively fluid range, shining brightest when ad-libbing and code-switching between Tommy and Hedwig.
As billed, there are truly wickedly funny lines — such as Hedwig’s agent being named Phyllis Stein (philistine, geddit? defined as someone hostile or indifferent to culture and the arts, or with no understanding of them), but the audience must lean in to catch them all given Shegogue’s often frenetic delivery and occasional issues with muffled sound. It might be worth a second viewing, maybe on a Thursday, to catch a guaranteed understudies’ performance with Gary Bernard DiNardo as Hedwig and Julianna Cooper as Yitzhak.
Although the production vibe is of a drawn-out SNL monologue, the cool Angry Inch band supplies steaming-hot licks. Co-musical directors David Smigielski (guitar) and David Weinraub (keyboard/guitar) play the near-unpronounceable Krysztof and Skszp, with two other nondescript immigrants — Schlatko (Christopher Willett on bass) and Jacek (Tito Perez on drums) — proving their mastery of the blues-rock masters despite their low vision wearing shades.
It’s kind of a drag that the lighting doesn’t rise to the level of the actors’ and musicians’ pulsating energy. Despite warnings of strobe use, the mostly rainbow lighting felt static overall. As Hedwig threads through the audience, a follow spot was sorely missed, creating annoying visual dropouts.
But other visuals speak volumes, such as keeping Shegogue hydrated with water bottles costumed in Miller Lite koozies. Miller Lite is famous for its long-standing embrace of the LGBTQ+ community. The set design (Alex Bryce) and dressing/painting (Matt Liptak) is a roadmap of glam-rock nostalgia mixed with gritty dive-bar ambiance. And Hedwig’s quick on-stage changes — whether into a breakaway butterscotch tog for the raucous “Sugar Daddy” into silver-cross pasties in the heart-ripping finale — might fog you up.
Hedwig is, at its core, a show about halves and divisions and humanity’s yearning for wholeness. Whether breaking down the Berlin Wall to reunify a country, finding one’s soulmate to make one feel complete, or busting the fourth wall to connect with a dumbstruck audience, it’s about repairing or bridging fissures. As Hedwig declares, upon first seeing Tommy, both their protégé and missing piece (loosely quoted): “He is the one. The twin, born by fish, and he’ll die by fusion. The words to finish the sentence that starts with ‘I am …’”
The show’s also about originality, authenticity, and reinvention. Back when Hedwig exploded onto the scene, there was no name for who they were; they defied categorization as “a gender of one.” What my vintage brain finds interesting about gender nonconformity today is the proliferation of labels. Consider the umbrella term for inclusivity — LGBT, morphing to LGBTQ, eventually LGBTQ+, with the plus sign making it finally fully inclusive, we hope — each character standing for something unique, threatening to place folks in boxes. You meet someone and perhaps inquire how they define themselves. By shedding pretenses, are we somehow, inadvertently, inventing new ones?
But Hedwig thinks outside the (wig) box. And Dominion Stage has mounted a wigged-out production worthy of closer examination that will challenge anyone’s rigid thinking.
However you slice it, this Hedwig stands up to the test(es) of time.
Running Time: About 80 minutes with no intermission.
Hedwig and the Angry Inch plays Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 8 p.m. through May 6, 2023, presented by Dominion Stage, performing at Gunston Arts Center Theatre Two, 2700 South Lang Street, Arlington, VA. Tickets ($30) are available online or at the door. Premium cabaret seating (guaranteed interaction with the cast) is available for $35.
The program for Hedwig and the Angry Inch is online here.
COVID Safety: Audience masking is optional for this production.
Tear Me Down
The Origin of Love
The Angry Inch
Wig in a Box
Wicked Little Town
The Long Grift
Wicked Little Town Reprise
Cam Shegogue — Hedwig
Vanessa Bliss — Yitzhak
Gary Bernard DiNardo — *Hedwig Understudy
Julianna Cooper — *Yitzhak Understudy
*Understudies perform Thursdays, April 27 and May 4, as well as being on standby for the primary performers.
ANGRY INCH BAND
David Weinraub – Keyboard/guitar
David Smigielski — Guitar
Christopher Willett — Bass
Tito Perez — Drums
Director — Danielle Guy
Executive Producers — Carol Clark & Jennifer Lyman
Producer — Gwyneth Sholar
Music Directors — David Weinraub & David Smigielski
Stage Manager — Samantha McClaugherty
Set Design — Alex Bryce
Set Painting & Set Dressing — Matt Liptak
Sound Design — Carolyn Fado
Lighting Design — Jeff Auerbach & Kimberly Crago
Costume Design — Anna Marquardt
Hair and Makeup Design — Maurissa Sosa
Dramaturg — Natalie Parks