On Tuesday my wife and I attended opening night of “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” at the Durham Performing Arts Center. It was quite a different experience from the other musicals I have scene to date. It is put on as if it were an actual rock concert. In some ways it felt like a one-person show with the very talented Euan Morton playing the title role of Hedwig – a genderqueer rock singer who uses the “concert” to tell the audience her story filled with pain, rejection, and ultimately redemption. She is joined on stage by only one other character
It is a story that will take you to uncomfortable places at times. Its the tale of Hansel, a “slip of a boy” from East Berlin escapes from behind the Iron Curtain by becoming a woman and marrying an American soldier. The sex-change operation is botched as Hansel transforms into Hedwig with a scarred “angry inch” where his penis used to be. After escaping to America Hedwig is abandoned by his husband, but falls for another boy who, like Hedwig has musical aspirations. This relationship also ends painfully with Hedwig feeling abandoned and betrayed.
Hedwig’s tells her story through a monologue interspersed between musical numbers. Meanwhile all this takes place upon a stage that recycles a set depicting a war damaged scene from a fictional “hurt locker” performance that supposedly took the stage the night before. The carnage of the set is a reflection of Hedwig’s damaged past.
The only other character who shares the stage with Hedwig throughout the show is her assistant, back-up singer and husband, Yitzhak, played by Hannah Corneau. Yitzak is a former drag queen that has a toxic codependent relationship with Hedwig. Hedwig verbally abuses Yitzak throughout the evening, and it becomes clear that she is threatened by his natural talent, which she fears eclipses her own.
Like I said, this show is different. Throughout the performance Hedwig breaks down the “4th wall” of theater and speaks directly to the audience. At times even coming off the stage to interact with people in the front row of the theater. The performance is sprinkled with local flavor such as referencing Hedwig’s former lover performing next door at the Durham Bulls Athletic Park. There are even a few jabs at local politics and House Bill 2 as Hedwig laments not being able to use the restroom since arriving in NC.
A few things you should know before heading into the show. It hits on some pretty mature topics. While I think these are important issues for society to talk about it may not be suitable for younger audiences. Also, it runs 90 minutes without an intermission. Again, the format is concert like and not your typical musical. The music is glam rock in nature. There is no pit band, the musicians are right there on the stage as part of the show and completing the concert like atmosphere. The show can be loud, bright, and even a bit shocking at times, as Hedwig becomes increasingly unhinged as the story progresses until a wonderful transformation as the shows end draws nears breathes a sense of hope, change and acceptance.
Morton and Corneau deliver powerful performances. I’ve never seen a production with just two characters on stage. It can’t be easy carrying the weight of a show like that, and they make it look effortless pouring themselves into their roles. This is a show that will make you think. Maybe about things you never even considered important before. It may not be a story everyone is ready to hear, but it is a story that our increasingly open society can’t afford to ignore if we all want to move forward recognizing the struggles some go through to achieve acceptance.
“Hedwig and the Angry Inch” shows through this Sunday, February 5th at DPAC. For tickets visit https://www.dpacnc.com/events/detail/hedwig-the-angry-inch