On a chilly night in November at Cabaret Mado in Montreal’s Gay Village, a band takes the stage. At a microphone on one side is a drag king, looking somber and sad as a solitary figure in a cloak covered in stars and stripes walks on stage to the tune of America The Beautiful.
Suddenly the figure, seemingly a blonde woman glamorously made up, turns, grabs the central mic and breaks into her number Tear Me Down. It’s the opening of In the Wings Promotions production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, and its title character, Hedwig, has just taken the stage.
This is not your typical play. Based on the so-called “off off off off-Broadway show” and film by John Cameron Mitchell and composer and lyricist Stephen Trask who was present during opening night for a post-performance Q&A). It’s the tale of a “slip of a girly boy from communist East Berlin” who gets a sex change in order to marry an American soldier and cross over to the ally-controlled Western side of the city at a time when the Soviet Union restricted access.
It is not a play featuring many characters played by many actors, nor are there elaborate scene changes. The story is told almost entirely by Hedwig while she and her band, the Angry Inch, and her husband Yitzhak, perform across from a venue where her last spurned love, the star Tommy Gnosis, is playing to crowds of adoring fans. Her storytelling is interrupted by the show’s numerous songs, including the famous sing-along Wig in a Box.
Andrew Morrissey plays Hedwig. He does a fine job showing her struggles with her sexual identity, finding love, and peace with herself in America. His makeup, wigs, and costumes, done by Jess Beyer and Sig Moser, are faithful recreations of what people have come to expect of the character: black leather, denim, and studs that are staples of eighties and nineties rock outfits, Hedwig’s blonde curls with their signature center part, and the garish blue eye shadow, penciled eyebrows, and red lipstick.
Morrissey is unsteady in his high heels at times and his singing is occasionally pitchy, his German accent ranging from pronounced to non-existent. That said, he has the stage presence and the emotion the character requires. In the parts where Hedwig is coming unglued, you never doubt the sincerity of it.
It is not, however, Hedwig that steals the show in this production, but rather her second husband, Yitzhak, played by producer Noelle Hannibal. Clad in the beard and shapeless clothing of a drag king, her portrayal conveys the depression, fear, and passive aggressiveness of someone in an abusive relationship.
You feel it in every gesture, in every insult muttered under his breath, and in every passive reaction to Hedwig yanking the microphone from his hand when his powerful feminine voice breaks through hers. While Morrissey’s performance was very true to form, it is Hannibal’s portrayal that I remember the most clearly from that night.
The band, known as The Angry Inch never misses a beat (despite some issues with the sound system that night). Though they are clearly musicians first, they do have some acting talent and interact with Hedwig and Yitzhak throughout the show.
The show also featured animations by flash animation artist, StickdudeSeven. While they lacked colour and were less stylized than the animation in the Hedwig and the Angry Inch movie, they did suit the material well. Unfortunately, the stage was not set up to truly do them or the projected lyrics for the sing-along justice. They were projected onto a screen at the back of the stage that was so low to the floor that Hedwig, standing in front of the stage, often obscured them. A set up that was higher or ever above the stage would have been easier to follow.
All that said, the play is a lot of fun. The story is sincere and relatable to anyone struggling with gender identity, domestic abuse, artistic expression, or just finding oneself. The music is catchy and uplifting with the occasional hint of guttural sex. Check it out.
* Hedwig and the Angry Inch plays Wednesday, November 21 and Thursday, November 22 at 8pm at Cabaret Mado, 1115 Ste-Catherine Est. Tickets available through In The Wings Promotions
** Featured image by Romantic Photographic