Hedwig and the Angry Inch
Through Sunday, Feb. 5
Durham Performing Arts Center, Durham
The year before the Berlin Wall came down, the title character of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, now in Durham on a national tour following a 2014 Broadway production, was in his early twenties when he was permanently disfigured by a disastrous East German gender-confirmation surgery, becoming what playwright John Cameron Mitchell calls “a gender of one.”
The math is unforgiving; the title character would be pushing fifty or beyond now. Perhaps it’s a small point in a world where septuagenarians like Mick Jagger, Bob Dylan, and Aretha Franklin can still raise a ruckus. But the recital of grievances in this gender-queer rock biography had a particular valance in the late-nineties, when Hedwig still possessed the immediacy of the decade in which the events took place.
Now, despite an abundance of updated cultural references, the damage and grudges chronicled by the title character seem somewhat dated. Songwriter Stephen Trask’s opening number, “Tear Me Down,” has the same problem when it asserts that Hedwig is still like the Berlin Wall, which is long gone.
That’s regrettable, because the show—and its opening night audience—clearly demonstrated that, as a nation and a state, we still haven’t faced the realities of lives outside the gender binary. The walkouts during the first half-hour came before Euan Morton’s towering Hedwig complained of having been “barred from the gender-neutral bathroom at Pat McCrory’s house.”
Since Hedwig had been recalibrated for a larger venue like DPAC, we anticipated the rock-show overkill in designer Kevin Adams’s blinding floodlights and LED displays, and John Bair’s projected animations loaned playfulness to “The Origin of Love” and mania to “Exquisite Corpse.” Arianne Phillips’s delightful, droll costumes and Mike Potter’s pneumatic wigs shone in tawny mid-show tribute to Tina Turner.
But the four-piece band lead by music director Justin Craig sold softer songs like “Wicked Little Town” and “Wig in a Box” with more authority than most of the show’s straight-ahead rockers. Morton’s voice as Hedwig recalled the range of Nina Hagen, whose pipes could embrace opera and strip paint from the walls in the same number. Hannah Corneau’s work as Yitzhak was similarly abrasive in a pre-show greeting and melting in “The Long Grift,” before she exhorted us on backing vocals in “Midnight Radio.”
It’s still an epiphany when Hedwig stands at show’s end, stripped of all imposed gender markers, yet entirely triumphant, sufficient and whole. If the legislators who brought us HB 2 could only see this moment, they might finally realize that not as much divides us as they think.