Wigged out

Rebel yell: Hedwig (played by Michael Sheldon) might be an outsider in every way, but she pulls the audience in with a compelling story and a rocking set of songs. Photo by Jen Lepkowski Photography

According to North Carolina Stage Company artistic director Charlie Flynn-McIver, one underlying aspect to Hedwig and the Angry Inch — the rock music-enhanced theatrical production — is the main character's appreciation of authenticity. The irony here is that Hedwig (the blond-coiffed glam rock front woman who tells her life story to her unwitting audience via the fantastic songs performed by her band, the Angry Inch) is not the genuine article. Not outwardly so. Born a "slip of a girly boy from communist East Berlin," she suffered a botched sex-change surgery (hence the inch in question) in an effort to leave Germany by marrying a man. During the play, Hedwig appears mostly as a woman in an array of dramatic costumes and wigs. But, trapped in a no man's land between nationalities, genders and lovers, little about Hedwig is as it appears.

Put on some makeup

Flynn-McIver says that in rehearsing the production, "We've talked a lot about spinning tops." He says the play is meant to knock the audience off-kilter — and Hedwig's gender ambiguity is really just the beginning.

In the NC Stage performance, Hedwig will be played by Michael Sheldon, the man behind beloved drag personalities Cookie La Rue and Lorna Doone. Hedwig is "a lot deeper than my characters," says Sheldon. "My characters are just surface, funny." He says that learning the role of Hedwig is about discovering her secrets.

The character of Hedwig is "the absolute, total, complete outsider," says Sheldon. "Even on your worst day when you feel like there's no place for you in the world, take that and multiply it by everything in the world. And it comes out of her as this punk-rock badass, in killer boots." It's that particular footware, he says, that made it initially possible to tap Hedwig's psyche. In a rehearsal for the show, Sheldon (in T-shirt and plaid shorts) zips up the knee-high leather boots and immediately starts to swagger.

Sheldon heard about the role from multi-instrumentalist Aaron Price, who's working on the music for the show. Local vocalist Laine Lewis plays the part of Yitzak, Hedwig's husband/put-upon roadie. Those who've only seen the movie version of Hedwig might not be as familiar with Yitzak; the stage show delves deeper into his complex relationship with the lead character. Worth noting: Lewis (like every actor who has played Yitzak) is female, though Yitzak's character is not a drag role.

More spinning tops?

Katherine Maria, a fan of the film, commented on YouTube.com, "Yitzak (on both stage and screen) is always played by a woman because Stephen Trask, the composer, wanted a soprano part to contrast Hedwig's voice, but still wanted Hedwig and the Angry Inch to be an all male band except for their lead." Flynn-McIver says the theory makes sense, but the decision for Yitzak to be played by a woman could also have been born of necessity. "A lot of times, you make decisions based on practicality and later realize it works," he says of working in theater.

Iggy Pop would approve

The idea to produce Hedwig back in 2002 as NC Stage's second show was not necessarily one of practicality. At the time, Flynn-McIver thought, it would be difficult, but the then-burgeoning theater company could do a really good job with it and it would be something nobody had ever seen before. (Hedwig was first performed on stage in '98 and released on film in 2001.) Plus, Flynn-McIver thought, "we'll get people who don't usually come to the theater, and they'll like it, and then they'll trust us and come see Hamlet. Well, that actually wasn't true." But they did sell out the show — to an audience that ranged from students to seniors.

"The thing I knew about it, from seeing it, was that it was extraordinary," says Flynn-McIver. He'd first experienced Hedwig in New York. "I really was thinking, I have nothing in common with this character and it won't mean anything to me. I came away from it realizing I had everything in common with this character."

So how can Hedwig, the German-born, transgendered glam rock front woman have anything in common with her audience? That's the brilliance of the play: It's not really about any of that. Instead, Hedwig is about, as Flynn-McIver, puts it, "universal themes of humanity."

Sheldon adds that the play is about "this universal longing that everyone has not just to find your other half, but to find yourself." The story pivots on the song, "The Origin of Love," in which Hedwig recounts a mythology in which "Folks roamed the earth like big rolling kegs. They had two sets of arms. They had two sets of legs. They had two faces peering out of one giant head." Threatened by this contented race of humans, Zeus split them with a lightening bolt, damning them to search forever for their other halves.

Indeed, the story of Hedwig (written by John Cameron Mitchell, who also played the lead role in the film) cannot be separated from its Trask score. And though Flynn-McIver points out that NC Stage is "not adverse to doing musicals," he says that "this is what I call a play with music." Theatergoers who shy away from the cloying likes of Oklahoma! will find comfort in Hedwig's smart, rock-savvy songs.

That probably has everything to do with Hedwig's appreciation of authenticity. Flynn-McIver draws an imaginary arc from burbly "Friday" songstress Rebecca Black to punk godfather Iggy Pop. Male or female, German or American, famous or infamous, it's easy to guess on which side of that scale Hedwig falls.

NC Stage celebrates its 10th anniversary on Saturday, Sept. 10 with a party between the 7 and 10:30 p.m. shows. A ticket to either show gains you admission to the party, with Champagne, small bites, open bar and music and dancing with the Hedwig cast.

— Alli Marshall can be reached at amarshall@mountainx.com.

where: Hedwig and the Angry Inch
where: NC Stage
when: Wednesday, Aug. 24-Sunday, Sept. 25 (7:30 p.m. Wednesdays-Fridays, 7 & 10:30 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. $17/$26/$29. Wednesday, Aug. 24 is pay what you can night. $50 on Saturday, Sept. 10 includes NC Stage 10th anniversary party. http://www.ncstage.org)

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About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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