On the most external level, Hedwig Schmidt is a trashy, tabloid-touted transsexual, an East German drag queen who sports a bleach-blond wig that would give Dolly Parton the willies. Although she describes herself as an "internationally ignored song stylist," she's actually a sleazy lounge singer backed up by a bored four-piece rock band, the Angry Inch. The group's name refers to Hedwig's botched sex-change operation, which left her/him with a "one inch mound of flesh, where my penis used to be, where my vagina never was."
Clearly, you won't be seeing Hedwig and the Angry Inch at the Muny anytime soon. But that's not to suggest that it only appeals to a cult audience. The show has evolved into an international success because by night's end a bizarre, almost freakish, character becomes completely accessible. Who is Hedwig? She's you, she's me, she's anyone and everyone who ever felt shortchanged by life and had to make the most of what they were given.
As the performance begins, Hedwig -- clad in cowboy boots and a gold frock that Betty Hutton might have worn early on in Annie Get Your Gun -- makes a grand entrance and sings the overamplified rock number "Tear Me Down." It might be commonplace for rock concert attendees to not understand song lyrics. But theatergoers are spoiled; we expect to hear the words. So the act begins on a disorienting note. Yet it's just possible that this obfuscation is intentional, to obliquely suggest that Hedwig's entire world is disoriented. For indeed, as the evening progresses and we grow more understanding of her, the lyrics to these rock, heavy-metal, country and even theater-influenced songs become clearer.
Throughout 90 minutes of confessional cabaret, Hedwig chronicles her unhappy childhood behind the Berlin Wall, her failure as a GI bride and her stalled career. But mostly she dwells on her unrequited love for Tommy, a boy she met in Junction City, Kansas. With Hedwig's guidance, Tommy has gone on to become a rock star; now he ignores her. (One of the evening's affectations is that, even as Hedwig is relegated to performing in the shabby Soulard Theatre, a few blocks away Tommy is appearing before a mass audience at Busch Stadium.) Tommy is the "other half" that Hedwig has spent her life pursuing, the half she thinks she needs in order to achieve wholeness.
There's nothing new about gender-bending on stage and in film. From Twelfth Night to Some Like it Hot, from Charley's Aunt to The Rocky Horror Picture Show, playwrights and filmmakers have been obsessed by the duality of the sexes. What distinguishes Hedwig from so many others is that it is a story without a leer. There's no smugness here, no sly, dirty wink. In creating the character ten years ago, John Cameron Mitchell was influenced both by Plato's Symposium (a dialogue on various forms of love) and by the 1992 documentary I Am My Own Woman, about German transvestite Charlotte von Hahlsdorf. (Its current stage adaptation, I Am My Own Wife, won this year's Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award.) These are not flippant source materials; no surprise then that, despite its camp humor and cheap double-entendre, Hedwig possesses weight.
The current Vanity Theatre production, which was directed by Charlotte Dougherty, features a pickup band with four area musicians: Tyson Blanquart on drums, Dave Kavanaugh on guitar, Dominic "Nick" Thompson Jr. on bass and musical director Kad Day on keyboard. Hedwig's weary backup singer-husband is effectively portrayed by Nicole Trueman, a curvaceous young woman whose first layer of costume (we're only guessing here) must be a roll of Saran Wrap.
Bradley Calise plays Hedwig. On opening night his brave performance captured the transsexual to this extent: Calise was comfortable with the story narrative, but like Hedwig, he too still was searching for "the other half" of his personality. For Calise, that other half is the half that will provide the character's emotional arc. If by this weekend he can find the heartbreak and melancholy inherent in his Blond Venus, Hedwig and the Angry Inch should provide a cathartic evening of embracing theater.