Rock ‘n’ roll fantasy

“I remember thinking, ‘What am I going to have in common with a transsexual [who’s had] a botched sex change?’ … [but] I left the theater that night thinking, ‘I have everything in common with Hedwig.'”

Hedwig and the Angry Inch musical director Charlie Flynn-McIver

Hedwig isn’t like the other boys. First of all, there’s the issue of what — exactly — resides between his legs.

As Hedwig’s band’s name, the Angry Inch, implies, not a lot. During the course of the play (and last year’s popular movie), audiences learn how Hedwig earned his name, lost most of his penis, and got jilted by two men he loved and trusted. Still, Hedwig takes the lemons he’s been handed and makes lemon daiquiris from them. Determined to find his soul mate, Hedwig embraces rock ‘n’ roll, eventually finding himself in the process.

Charlie Flynn-McIver, co-founder of North Carolina Stage Company, as well as music director for the Asheville production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, wasn’t all that interested in the play when it opened off-Broadway in 1998.

“The girl I was dating then wanted to go, and I had free tickets,” he recalls. “I remember thinking, ‘What am I going to have in common with a transsexual [who’s had] a botched sex change?'” By the time the play was over, his opinion had changed completely. “I left the theater that night thinking, ‘I have everything in common with Hedwig,'” he says.

Such a sea change suggests Hedwig and the Angry Inch is about more than a guy in a wig fronting a rock band. Ken Triwush, the New York-based actor playing the lead in the Asheville production, points out that Hedwig dons women’s clothing out of necessity, not choice. Hedwig’s first lover, a U.S. Army officer stationed in Berlin, cajoles Hedwig (then Hansel) into dressing as a woman, and, finally, into going under the knife so that Hedwig can accompany him back to the U.S. as his wife. Even though the surgery isn’t completely successful, Hedwig has already committed to living as a woman. Back in Kansas, however, the officer leaves her for another young man — and so Hedwig adopts a drag persona and begins experimenting with rock ‘n’ roll in an attempt to make both a living and a life.

After being dumped by her husband, she meets Tommy Speck, the son of a high-ranking military official. Hedwig seduces young Tommy with music, and they begin collaborating on songs. But when Tommy discovers that Hedwig is really a boy, he leaves her, claims credit for all the songs they wrote together, and manages to become, as Tommy Gnosis, a big pop star. Spurned again, Hedwig makes it her mission to become a star in her own right.

“Hedwig isn’t a really good drag queen — she’s a survivor,” says Triwush. And the play/movie isn’t a Rocky Horror Picture Show for the new millennium, as many critics have suggested. Rocky Horror was good, campy fun — well worth its place in the Midnight Movie canon. Hedwig, however, holds more. “It’s a great story about forgiveness, salvation and finding your place in the world,” says Triwush. As Hedwig pursues these goals, she becomes more than a bad drag queen or a would-be rock ‘n’ roller — or a poor slob with a botched sex change. Hedwig becomes everyman … and everywoman.

Behind the wigs

Director Ron Bashford, imported from New York just for this production, says he was “blown away by Hedwig [the movie version, which garnered a Sundance Film Festival Audience Award].

“The music is great,” he continues, “and through the music resonates that basic desire to find a soul mate. Anyone who’s ever been in love, period, will identify with this.”

Also featured in the production are several local musicians: Aaron Price on keyboards and guitar; Matthew Kinne on guitar; Mick Cameron on percussion; and Flynn-McIver on bass. Together, they make up the Angry Inch. Cast individually, they’ve formed a band for the play.

“I’ve never done theater before,” says Cameron. Like Flynn-McIver, he wasn’t interested in seeing Hedwig, “but my girlfriend made me [watch the movie version] and I loved it,” he says. Cameron initially auditioned for the guitar role, but says he was happy to be chosen as drummer. According to Flynn-McIver, Price was his first choice for keyboard/guitar. “I kept asking around [town] for a good keyboard player who could also play guitar, and everybody I talked to said, ‘You want Aaron Price.'” Price recommended Kinne, and the band was formed.

Hedwig and the Angry Inch is part rock concert, part mockumentary. Flynn-McIver describes it as “one of the only musicals that would jazz me enough to do.” This particular type of musical, which Flynn-McIver calls “guitar theater,” features actors playing their own instruments. “Usually,” he says, “the story is secondary to the music. In Hedwig, the lyrics move the story forward. They propel the story.”

One last — and seemingly unwilling — member of the Angry Inch is the character Yitzhak. Local singer/musician Nikki Talley plays the simmering Yitzhak, Hedwig’s very put-upon second husband, whom she meets, post-Tommy, on tour. A popular drag queen in Serbia who opens for the Angry Inch, Yitzhak reveals to Hedwig that he would like to live in America, and so she marries him to that end. Back in the States, however, Yitzhak becomes Hedwig’s perpetual sideman after she jealously convinces him to join her band (the better to squelch his potential fame). Frustrated, Yitzhak longs for his own shot at stardom — and to be out from under Hedwig’s acrylic-nailed thumb. Their relationship is all about power; Hedwig, who’s been betrayed before, wants to make sure Yitzhak does things her way — and just to make sure, Hedwig keeps a tight hold on Yitzhak’s passport.

“In the play, Yitzhak is always played by a woman,” reveals Flynn-McIver. “[The role calls for] someone to sing high harmony, so John Cameron Mitchell [who co-wrote Hedwig and first starred as the lead] decided to cast a woman in the role.” According to Flynn-McIver, having a woman playing a man serves to further blur and confuse the issue of gender roles. Talley, who’s perfectly at home performing her own music on stage, admits that being in a play is more challenging.

“This is my first crack at theater,” Talley says. “But since it’s a musical and I’m part of the band, I thought it would be OK.” Playing a man, however, poses some difficulties of its own.

“When I’m performing my own music I’m very aware of myself as a woman — I shake my hips, all that. [So] I try to envision myself as a man when I perform as Yitzhak — I’m trying to do more of a Henry Rollins thing,” she offers, shaking her head in demonstration. While their voices mix well and they seem to have good chemistry, it will be interesting to watch the pairing of Triwush, who scrapes the ceiling at 6 feet 3 inches, and Talley, who’s about a foot shorter.

That they’ll be performing in a 99-seat, black-box theater is “an opportunity, not a challenge,” believes Bashford. “We’re going to decorate the theater in a way that looks like Hedwig and his band came through and defaced it with graffiti.”

The theater itself “doesn’t have any crossover space behind the stage,” explains Stage Manager Jacqueline Dribbon, who also managed N.C. Stage’s first production, Shakespeare’s R&J. “And we don’t have a front curtain, so the audience sees the stage right away when they walk into the theater.”

Still, Dribbon maintains that “the configuration of the theater causes you to be more creative with blocking, etc.” When N.C. Stage presented Shakespeare’s R&J last April, the fledgling group became the second professional theater company to open in Asheville in the past year (Highland Repertory Theatre got a jump on N.C. Stage, performing its first play last fall). Flynn-McIver says having two professional theater groups in town is a good thing.

“There’s enough theater for everyone to do right now,” he insists.

So whether you go on your own or your girlfriend makes you, take a gander (or a goose) at Hedwig. You just might find a little something you weren’t looking for.

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