Harlequin’s latest brings great music, chemistry between actors, and transformations with a feeling that anything’s possible. Hedwig and the Angry Inch runs through July 30 in Olympia.
Update 7/12/2022: Performances cancelled this week, will resume 7/21; show extended through 8/6.
We thought the wall would stand forever.
And now that it’s gone, we don’t know who we are anymore.
There are many theories on the meaning of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, the 1998 hit by John Cameron Mitchell (book) and Stephen Trask (music and lyrics). I won’t go into those much; I’ve walked away with something a little different each time I’ve seen it. And with this iteration’s opening over Pride weekend intersecting with the Supreme Court’s latest example of dismantling protected individual rights — this time in a full-blown upheaval — themes of identity and liberty pulsed a little harder this time around.
By its description, Hedwig’s sounds like a story about shame. Hiding. A mother who didn’t love her, an apartment that couldn’t fit her, a gender expression she never got to choose, a botched sex-change operation she never wanted in order to escape a country torn asunder, and two loves lost. She talks of fame, acclaim, and arena rock shows that her talents should have won her, but that never took her past the makeshift stage near the Sizzler salad bar. Instead, now performing in a tiny rock club, she opens the door to eavesdrop on her lost love who used her songs to get those big-time shows instead.
With her fantastical tales and self-grandeur, just how reliable of a narrator is this Hedwig, anyway?
In some ways it doesn’t matter. What’s in front of us is what we get; and tonight that’s a tall, blond-wigged entertainer who’s alternately commanding the stage and in the throes of a full-fledged meltdown.
* * *
Under direction of artistic director Aaron Lamb, Harlequin’s staging of this much-done cabaret-style rock musical — sometimes called (perhaps rightly) the greatest rock musical ever — transports us back 30 years, to a bustling punk and indie rock scene right here in downtown Olympia, birthplace of the Riot Grrrl scene and adjacent to that of grunge. It feels believable. The staging created by Jeannie Beirne (set design) and Olivia Burlingame (lighting) manages to suggest both drag culture and the looming influence of the Berlin Wall are threaded through this divey rock venue.
Around Hedwig are her cast-offs. There’s the band, called The Angry Inch, without which she couldn’t perform but whose names she’s barely bothered to learn: bandleader Skszp (Brent Pendleton) on piano, Krzyzhtoff (David Broyles) on guitar, Jacek (Matt Fearon) on bass, and Schlatko (Andy Garness) on drums. And there’s Yitzhak, her husband (stage or actual, it doesn’t matter much) — at once her primary cheerleader and unwanted appendage — whom she relegates into the shadows.
Both, it seems, are her only chosen family. And over both, she lords threats of deportation if they protest their treatment. It’s a hell of a way to exist, let alone create.
* * *
For all she’s a self-focused diva, Hedwig isn’t in a good place either. She’s blocked by the past, just as often opening the club’s back door to spy in on her lost love’s reverberating show as remembering she’s supposed to be performing her own. It’s a loss that gnaws at her, worsened by her refusal to put any distance (physical, let alone emotional) between them.
As Hedwig, Adam Rennie’s portrayal is in tune with his character’s unraveling. Rennie’s Hedwig is loud and layered, withdrawn and all-bravado, sexy, confident, scandalized, and sad. It’s all peaks and valleys. This is a Hedwig who’s giving us everything she’s got; she who once had everything to gain, and now has nothing left to lose.
It’s an unexpected thing, but this Hedwig calls to mind the Billie Holiday portrayed in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill, which Alexandria J. Henderson performed beautifully here earlier in Harlequin’s season. (Read NWT’s review here.) Although Holiday’s (real) career soared to the finest stages that the fictional Hedwig only dreamed of, at these stages of life they’ve found themselves at the same place. They’re full of stories from glories past, draped proudly in furs long past their better days, drunk out of their minds, as flashes of incredible talent burst through even as they’re losing their grip. Both look for a welcoming ear from an audience of strangers they’ve now drawn near as their closest confidants and friends.
But while Lady Day’s re-created breakdown took place at the end of her career arc, just before the (very real) end of her days, Hedwig’s fictionalized breakdown, set some 35 years later, arrives early; there’s a chance for redemption, a changed course, a new chance at love — perhaps beginning with herself. And after she takes us all over the place and then apologizes for being so open, we’re left with the sense that this is the catharsis she needed to take her next steps, whatever those may be.
When she does flip the switch from wallower to entertainer, Hedwig the Performer is a star. Working the room, Rennie-as-Hedwig has the audience in her fishnet-wrapped hands. (On that note, the costume, wig, and makeup design by Darren Mills has Hedwig looking every bit the alternately bright and burnt-out star.) In a character he grew acquainted with in Hedwig‘s New Zealand premiere, Rennie’s personality fills the room as easily as his voice.
* * *
As Hedwig buckles and then re-creates herself over a journey we’re taken through in song, Yitzhak begins to find himself, emerging from the shadows. It’s the interplay of that power dynamic, release, and rebuilding — captured primarily in a matter of minutes — that makes this staging such an emotional trip.
Yitzhak, portrayed by Seattle-based artist Mandy Rose Nichøls, begins as a subservient prop for Hedwig — so weak, in fact, that one of the more entitled members of the (real) audience took it upon herself to grill Yitzhak’s bumbling explanation of why the star hadn’t bothered to make her appearance yet. (My read on this was the delay explanation was staged, but the audience member challenging it wasn’t.)
Yitzhak has three roles: to be Hedwig’s main cheerleader, working the passive spectators up into a supportive vocal audience before the star even takes the stage; providing background vocals from the darkest possible corners; and doing whatever menial task Hedwig demands of him. Later, it comes out that Yitzhak was himself a performer, whose drag persona overshadowed Hedwig’s own act; and, as a condition of the star bringing him along out of his miserable situation, he would never again be allowed to put on a wig, lest he upstage Hedwig once again. Subservient, bitter, and repressed — that’s Yitzhak. It’d be a boring role if Yitzhak never challenged that state of being.
Sure, there are boring moments; Yitzhak spends a lot of time in the shadows, and any early time in the limelight is in a script Hedwig has prescribed. But from shadows to spotlight is the dynamism of this character, and Nichøls hits that perfectly.
It’s grand to hear Nichøls’ vocals let loose, with their range not only pleasant on the ears but giving an aura of power and agency to their character. Long shut down by Hedwig, Yitzhak finds his own in his voice: from a bit of harmonizing in “Origin of Love” to a beautiful cover of Whitney Houston from the shadows in the wings, to a rollicking solo on the center catwalk, and on to the finale.
* * *
Even accounting for the royal pain that is driving from Seattle to Olympia, for your entertainment time and dollar, Harlequin’s Hedwig and the Angry Inch is tough to beat. As Hedwig, the star, Adam Rennie is thoroughly engrossing. The unsung hero, Yitzhak’s talent is obvious; the simmering resentment in Mandy Rose Nichøls’ portrayal is palpable; and the love/hate chemistry between them and Rennie makes for a stellar show.
To top-notch theatrics, with Hedwig Harlequin adds another superlative: this theatre can really rock. This rock show is full of hard love, and that makes it an easy one to love hard.
What to Expect – Some Notes on the Show Format
Hedwig is not confined to the stage. If you’re keen to get preened or messed with, front and center — the first two center rows and the middle of row C — are where you want to be. If you’re not into that sort of audience participation, those are not the seats for you. (That’s not to say you’ll be safe other places — I got serenaded from afar, which was just right for me — but definitely don’t sit right up there.)
Because there’s an opening band, the runtime of this show is more up in the air than usual. If you want the full experience, arrive half an hour earlier than the posted showtime and allow about three hours after it (i.e., arrive at 1:30 for a 2 and expect it to end before 5; arrive at 7 for a 7:30 and expect it to end before 10:30). At the show I saw, the opener started at 1:40 and played to 2:40, and the main event ran about 2:55 to 4:40.
Opening acts (listed here) change throughout the run.
Weekend 2 (through 7/3): Denim + the Deep Pockets (feat. Denim Protege)
Weekend 3 (7/7-10): Alex Blum & the Roadside Quartet
Weekend 4 (7/14-17): Keven James Hoffman
Weekend 5 (7/21-24): Golden Ruins
Weekend 6 (7/27-30): Smelly Cat
Over opening weekend, a tight, catchy cover band called Sugar and the Spitfires played an hour-long set of rock and country covers.
To an initially sedate audience of 20 at the beginning (that roughly doubled over the set), they eased in with the melodic “Stuck in the Middle With You” (Stealers Wheel) and guitar-driven “Mississippi Queen” (Mountain), unleashed a lively explosion of keyboard in “Get Rhythm” (Johnny Cash), activated some elder female audience members with the hip-swirlin’ (hunka hunka) “Burning Love” (made famous by Elvis), dug into meatier tales in “Ode to Billie Joe” (Bobbie Gentry) and “Coal Miner’s Daughter” (Loretta Lynn), skipped into jukebox favorites “Cripple Creek” (The Band) and “You Don’t Mess Around With Jim” (Jim Croce), before ending with the guttural, rolling thunder of bass in “Come Together” (The Beatles) and a smooth, comforting rendition of “Me and Bobby McGee” (Janis Joplin). Its refrain, Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose, set the tone for the story that followed.
From what little the internets turn up, it appears the group doesn’t do many shows (and indeed, lead singer and multi-arts performer Amy Shephard noted on her Instagram that “it’s been a long time” since they’ve played together), but you wouldn’t guess it from the group’s easy chemistry. If you find the chance to see Sugar and the Spitfires play again, 10/10 would recommend.
Hedwig and the Angry Inch runs through 7/30 at the State Theater in downtown Olympia. Tickets $46, available here. Accessibility notes: restrooms are gendered and multi-stall; there is one single-stall, gender-neutral restroom near the entrance to house left. Theatre and some common areas are wheelchair accessible.
Financial accessibility: four pay-what-you-choose performances (7/2 matinee, 7/8 night, 7/14 night, 7/24 matinee), available two hours before showtime (info here); half-price rush tickets available to all for all shows, 30 minutes before showtime, if any unsold seats remain (info here); industry and other discounts (info here). Current COVID policies are found here.
Update 7/12/2022: Performances cancelled this week, will resume 7/21; show extended through 8/6 with added PWYC date of 8/4.
View show dates on NWT’s Performance Calendar here.
Chase D. Anderson is Editor & Producer of NWTheatre.org.