Theater note: Give her an inch, she’ll steal the show

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Cross-dressing has a proud history in Minnesota theater. Our state’s very first theatrical productions were staged by all-male casts of Fort Snelling soldiers, so the heroines had to blush demurely through eight o’clock shadows. In light of that history, the pressure was on for director Joel Sass not to botch Hedwig’s story the way the character’s sex-change operation was botched by a back-alley East German surgeon. They haven’t. Indeed, Sass and his Jungle Theater creative team have treated the delicate Hedwig with the tender care she never knew in the arms of her two-faced born-again military-brat rock star lover.

Hedwig and the Angry Inch, presented through August 31 at the Jungle Theater, 2951 Lyndale Ave. S., Minneapolis. For tickets ($26-$36) and information, see jungletheater.com.


Hedwig and the Angry Inch, which debuted off-Broadway (not off-off, just off) ten years ago, is one of the few undisputed successes in the rock-musical genre, a genre that was born into its shining moment in the 1960s (Hair, Jesus Christ Superstar) and has stumbled through the succeeding decades like the drug-sotted characters who are among its most frequent subjects. A number of successful musicals, from Grease to Hairspray, have employed the rock-n-roll idiom, but Hedwig is unambiguously and unashamedly rock. The play’s music is supplied by an onstage glam band, and earplugs are issued with every program.

The play is set in a pine-paneled dive bar, where the washed-up Hedwig tells her sad story through popular song, mournful monologue, and dirty dance. We learn about her lonely childhood sharing a cold bed with an unloving mother, the strange and tragic circumstances of her 1988 defection across the Iron Curtain, and her troubled relationship with the confused Christian rocker Tommy Speck. As the play reaches its climax, Hedwig has a cathartic confrontation with her Israeli husband (who functions onstage as her hype man and backup singer) and may or may not reach a sort of redemption.

As, essentially, a one-woman show, the play rests largely on the shoulders of the actor wearing the pumps and the wig. Jarius Abts succeeds in making an exhausting role look effortless; manifestly enjoying himself, he holds the audience rapt with the amusement and horror of Hedwig’s story. The play’s conclusion, which (like the rock shows that inspired it) substitutes strobe lights and feedback for a coherent resolution, is unsatisfying—but at the performance I attended, when the cast boogied out to take its bows the crowd leapt to its feet to bestow a well-earned ovation.

Jay Gabler is the Daily Planet’s arts editor.

Also in the Daily Planet, read Jay Gabler on the Jungle Theater’s production of Rabbit Hole (April 2008).