‘Hedwig and the Angry Inch’ goes Unhinged.
By Joyce Gabiola • Photo by Tra` Slaughter
What would the world be today without John Cameron Mitchell’s and Stephen Trask’s 1998 off-Broadway hit Hedwig and the Angry Inch?
What if Hansel had not fallen under the charms of the lustful U.S. soldier and his bigger-than-normal Gummibärchen? Perhaps he would still be intact. However, if he hadn’t opened his mouth to the sweet, chewy goodness, he wouldn’t have journeyed from behind the Berlin Wall into the bowels of midwestern America, only to rise as the... well, at first, the babysitter to the children of a U.S. Army general, then the lead singer of a band backed by the unique stylings of three Korean housewives, the inspiration for a teenage boy to get up in the morning, and then finally… the “internationally ignored song stylist” and front-woman of the glam-rock band, Hedwig and the Angry Inch (performing live next door to a Tommy Gnosis concert near you). Then where would we be?
Simple. The world would be without a rock ‘n’ rollin’ East German girlyboy, bearing his soul about the origin of love, a botched sex-change operation, and unhappy meals, and arguably the most outrageous and smart script in musical theater. We’d be without an original, inventive story of soul-searching and phenomenal music, and that’s just unacceptable.
Unhinged Productions, the GLBT voice in local theater, teams up with the Frenetic Theater in May to bring Mitchell’s and Trask’s musical to Houston. For director Betsy Brown, Hedwig and the Angry Inch is her directorial debut in the United States. Having just returned from London, after moving there in 2001 to pursue post-graduate studies and classical acting, Brown finds herself impressed with the local businesses and artistic community in Houston. She has spent her entire professional life in London, training as a director at King’s Head Theatre and working with various theater and production companies, including Young Vic, Theater Royal Haymarket, Charm Offensive Productions, and Yellow Lemon.
When asked if she would be interested in directing Hedwig for Unhinged Productions, Brown says her jaw dropped and said, “Hell yeah, man!” She mentions she has a little director’s wish list of about eight shows, and Hedwig and the Angry Inch is one of them. After being approached about directing Unhinged Productions’ rendition of Hedwig, Brown said, “Thank you, universe.”
Mitchell’s and Trask’s Angry Inch extended to the global masses when a film version blasted onto screens in 2001 and was quickly turned into a cult favorite. The musical certainly has its fans. Like Brown having the opportunity to tackle a gig on her wish list, Chris Rivera, the local actor selected to play Hedwig, enthuses, “In contemporary theater, Hedwig is one of the greatest roles created in the last 20 years. There is no archetype that Hedwig is attached to. Hedwig has been in the back of my brain since 2002.” Rivera has a long history with Unhinged, playing roles in The House of Yes, The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me, Santos, Breaking the Code, and One Fine Day. Incidentally, Rivera was named one of OutSmart ‘s Top 10 People to Watch in 2005.
Although the character of Hedwig is inspired by the babysitter who had worked for Mitchell’s family when he was a teenager, Brown’s main goal is to convey the base premise, a series of philosophical discussions that Plato recorded called The Symposium. “To understand why the piece was conceived is very important,” says Brown. “I want to keep it true to what the writers originally hoped. You have to try to stay true to them, and at the same time, allow myself to express myself—my interests, beliefs and creativity, and artistic vision overall.”
Brown creates balance between her creative freedom and Mitchell’s and Trask’s artistic visions by working with local artists to create original paintings, jewelry, and costumes, all in the style of Hedwig. The production features 18 original paintings by emerging artist Tra` Slaughter. “The minute you enter the space through the front door, you’re in Hedwig’s world,” reveals Brown. “What is man, what is woman?” she continues. “How did we come to be man and woman as separate entities, and what is love? That’s what Hedwig and the Angry Inch is about, and I want to bring that forth, but it’s also the absolute celebration of music and the rock ‘n’ roll nature of it.”
In addition to staying true to Mitchell and Trask, Brown employs originality and artistic collaboration to achieve her vision. In addition to Rivera, Brown cast Heaven Stephens, who received an MFA in acting from the University of North Carolina, to play the role of Yitzhak, Hedwig’s gender-bending European husband. The uniqueness of the actors for this show comes naturally, as Rivera is, according to Brown, the first non-Caucasian actor to play Hedwig. Further, Stephens is an African-American woman who performs as a European woman playing a transgender man. “As an African-American female—yeah, I’m going there,” Stephens shares. “To be a character where I wouldn’t normally be cast is super exciting.”
Brown experienced petty criticism early on in the production process in regards to the auditions post on TheatrePort.com. The post reads: Please only apply if you have had professional acting training or have worked extensively in the theater. One poster stated that “it did seem kind of snotty in the wording.”
As every aspect of a theater production is important, most delicate is likely the relationship between the actors and their director. “I won’t work with any actors unless they’re professional actors because there’s a dichotomy between the director and the actor, and then the actor has to understand the stage and the theater and how it works, and it’s just a lot easier to get things done,” Brown explains.
In preparation for their roles, Rivera and Stephens agree that, among other things, such as research, just being a minority helps them perform their roles. “Just trying to find yourself,” adds Stephens. “Everyone has f–kin’ tried to do that. Emphasize the f–kin’.”
Brown reads from the manuscript: “Last time I saw you, we had just split in two, you were looking at me, I was looking at you. You had a way so familiar, but I could not recognize…. ‘Cause you had blood on your face…. But I could swear by your expression that the pain down in your soul was the same as the one down in mine. That’s the pain that cuts a straight line down through the heart. We call it love.
“That’s ‘The Origin of Love.’ That song encompasses the entire show,” asserts Brown.
Are you going to throw gummy bears into the audience during “Sugar Daddy”?
Brown smiles, “Possibly, maybe.”
Joyce Gabiola is a regular contributor to OutSmart magazine.