From the divided city of Berlin comes Hedwig, the divided self. She was born a he -- in the communist sector. For the world, then, was also divided -- between the East and the West. The tawdry glamour of capitalist freedom wafted over the no man's land: the scent of hamburgers from a newly opened McDonald's; rock 'n' roll music from the Armed Services radio station.
Hansel (Hedwig's first incarnation) was earning a few Deutschmarks offering oral sex in a bomb crater, when he was spotted by an American GI. The incomparably sweeter and chewier Gummy Bears of the West filled Hansel with a desperate courage. He would marry the GI and go to America. But, in order to be free, he had to give up a part of himself. Fate, or some perversely humorous God, decreed that he would give up less than he intended. One inch of Hansel remained. A most inconvenient inch. An angry inch.
There is something pleasing about Fate, that ancient and implacable mystery, moving amid Gummy Bears, McDonald's and such familiar detritus of everyday existence. Hedwig is keenly aware of this sardonic, classical dimension in her life. She is, in fact, obsessed with a Greek myth. In Plato's Symposium, the playwright Aristophanes, when called upon during a bibulous gathering to talk about love, comes up with the myth of the Hermaphrodite. Originally, he says, people were double creatures. Zeus in a moment of anger halved them. Now, we seek our other halves. Those who were composed of a man and a woman seek wholeness with the opposite sex. Those who were double men or double women seek wholeness with the same sex.
But what of Hedwig with her angry inch? She is Fate's fool, a tragic heroine. Well, she would be a tragic heroine, except that the myth she invokes was told by a comic playwright. And, it is our great good fortune that Hedwig's wounded spirit has been transformed through the alchemy of wit as successfully as her physical being has been metamorphosed by makeup, wigs and high-voltage attitude.
Hedwig is a blast. Outrageous, ingratiating, sly and artful. Much of the credit goes to the clever script (by John Cameron Mitchell) and the enjoyable, glam-influenced songs (by Stephen Trask). But to truly take flight, this show demands a star turn. And at the stylish Shim Sham Club, that's precisely what we get. Running With Scissors co-founder) Flynn De Marco fills the high-heel boots and black velvet short-shorts of the "internationally unknown rock star" as though to the manner born. It's a performance you don't want to miss.
The presentation is simple. The Angry Inch is a punked-out four-piece rock band (bassist Benji, guitarist Rhoades Diablo, keyboardist/guitarist Eric Laws, drummer Cori Walters). They look like they slept last night in a gutter on lower Decatur street, but play "kick-ass" music (although the over-40s crowd need not fear for their ear drums or their sensibilities; the songs are varied and catchy).
Hedwig is assisted onstage by Yitzak, a former drag queen known as "Crystal Nacht, the last Jewess of the Balkans." Hedwig picked Yitzak up while on tour in Serbia and married him. This oblique, enigmatic individual is the perfect foil for the flamboyant Hedwig. And just to make sure no one gets their bearings in this hallucinatory universe, the role is played by the protean and delightful Dorian Rush (aka Running With Scissors' Kiki Le Bonbon).
The one decorative effect in the show is a series of projected drawings (by James Youmans, from the original off-Broadway production). These comment on the story and its themes with an adroit naivete of line (I particularly liked a landscape with trailers, telephone poles and a crescent moon).
Directors Carl Walker (of All Kinds of Theatre) and Richard Read (Running With Scissors) have managed to create a show that feels spontaneous, but benefits from effects spontaneity alone could never achieve. Among these is the ending.
It's not hard to win an audience with Hedwig, when she's on a roll -- like when she reminisces about a reunion in a limo with her one-time protege and lover, the rock star Tommy Gnosis: "We dwove down the freeway, doing dwugs and catching up."
Or when she talks about hard times: "I did odd jobs, mostly the jobs we call blow."
But the end of the play is a bit like the end of Pinocchio, when the irrepressible puppet finally gets his wish and turns into a real boy. For Hedwig sheds her drag and, in a sense, merges with her other half, her male half. It is moving and truthful. And we know there is probably something important being said about acceptance and wholeness and redemption. But we are left as well with a sense of loss. We miss the fantastic, tormented, hilarious creature who had become our friend.