Three-day festival celebrates a fictional pop icon’s off-Broadway debut

GLITZ & GLAM: New to Asheville’s arts scene, HedFest celebrates 'Hedwig and the Angry Inch,' a 1998 musical about sexuality, gender identity, rock 'n' roll and radical self-love. Photo by Patrice Kennedy and Jennifer Bennet

Asheville-based performer Iggy Ingler admits that Hedwig Robinson — a gender-bending musician and protagonist of the 1998 musical and 2001 film Hedwig and the Angry Inch — is an unlikely underdog. She is, after all, a German rock ‘n’ roller who underwent gender reassignment surgery to escape the perils of communism and marry her American GI boyfriend. Still, Ingler thinks there is something “deeply human” in Hedwig’s narrative.

“I’ve heard people say, ‘What am I going to have in common with this woman from East Berlin who is a woman by sex change?’ Then they walk out of the theater having everything in common,” notes Ingler, a director, singer and cabaretier from New Orleans.

Ingler is partnering with Owly Cat Productions to stage his iteration of Hedwig and the Angry Inch (in which he plays the lead role) at The Grey Eagle, Friday-Sunday, March 30-April 1.

The performance anchors HedFest, a three-day jubilee celebrating the 20th anniversary of the musical’s off-Broadway debut at the Jane Street Theatre in Manhattan. Besides nightly showings, festivities run the gamut from glitter-infused dance parties to family-friendly Easter egg hunts. Friday will also see the Hed Bangers Ball — a rowdy gathering emceed by drag superstar Ida Carolina. Wigs or bunny ears are required, and you must be 18 or older to attend.

Ten percent of Friday’s and Sunday’s proceeds will be shared between Youth OUTright and Tranzmission, both local organizations that support the LGBTQIA community. All proceeds from Saturday’s show, plus 20 percent of money collected from the Hed Bangers Ball, will also benefit Tranzmission in honor of Transgender Day of Visibility on Saturday, March 31.

“The pain and often violent prejudice against trans women goes far, far, far beyond anything that could possibly be represented by Hedwig’s story,” Ingler says when asked about the festival’s philanthropic bent. “Even as heartbreaking as her story is.”

The script’s harrowing realism has attracted a cult following, earning an Obie Award in its first year off Broadway. Its subsequent movie version was directed by writer and actor John Cameron Mitchell. Local directors took note, too. N.C. Stage Company mounted productions in 2002 and 2011 (the latter starring Michael Sheldon, aka the late Cookie laRue), and The Synthesis Experiment offered its adaptation at the Toy Boat Community Arts Space last October.

A die-hard fan, Ingler has been itching to fill Hedwig’s shoes — which are “some intense shoes to be wearing,” he says — for many years now. “The story just resonates with me,” says Ingler. “As a performer, it’s always been something I’ve wanted to tackle.”

Be warned, though: This is not a story for the fainthearted and, as such, parental discretion is advised. Set at a rock ‘n’ roll gig, the play follows Hedwig as she divulges intimacies with her quick wit and sharp tongue. Searching for her “other half” as a young, queer boy named Hanschel, the protagonist reluctantly undergoes a sex change operation in order to wed a lusty soldier. But the operation goes awry, leaving the would-be pop star with the titular angry inch. Though made light of in the original script, Ingler will address the issue of medical malpractice head on.

“Part of what makes Hedwig a topic of debate in the transgender community is that when gender reassignment surgery goes wrong, it doesn’t leave the victim in a physical or mental condition to be singing about it onstage a year later,” he explains.

Accompanied by a band, also called The Angry Inch, and a backup singer named Yitzhak (played by local musician Polly Panic), Hedwig will spin music-infused monologues, describing her tenure in a Kansas trailer park, how her marriage fell apart, and her mentoring of fictional rock star Tommy Gnosis. Full of “camp comedy, dark humor and a heavy veneer of glam,” the production is a wild ride, says Ingler. It makes people laugh, cry and feel. (Ingler still gets teary-eyed when performing “The Origin of Love,” a song about finding soulmates.)

But Hedwig and The Angry Inch also makes people talk.

“This play inherently starts a conversation on these very human things,” Ingler says, referring to gender and sexuality. Her situation does call attention to the gender binary. Feeling neither completely masculine nor completely feminine, she exists between several polarities: man and woman, loved and loveless, famous and forgotten. It can be uncomfortable at times, agonizing even. But at curtain call, the key takeaway is clear: “There is more to being a person than these polar ideas,” says Ingler. “No matter what your identity is, at the end of the day, we have more in common than we have not in common.”

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About Lauren Stepp
Lauren Stepp is an award-winning writer with bylines here in these mountains and out yonder, too.

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