When Billy Ensley first took on the title role of Hedwig and the Angry Inch at Spirit Square in 2003, it was fair enough to caution that “Hedheads” would likely judge him to be a decade or more too old for the role. Ensley reprised his wildly popular star turn a year later when Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte moved to its current home at East Stonewall Street, but it seemed eminently sensible for Ensley to step back into a director’s capacity when the show was reprised yet again in 2007 with Scott Ripley taking over as the bitter, sexually mutilated rocker. So what is Ensley doing, reclaiming Hedwig as his own nearly 10 years after abandoning her? Incredibly, as Actor’s Theatre revives the show voted as their audience’s #1 favorite for the company’s 25th anniversary celebration, Ensley is better than ever as the anguished transgendered punk with the silken fly-away hair.
Coming to the role as Charlotte’s pre-eminent triple threat, Ensley originally emphasized Hedwig’s colorful storyline – changing genders (from Hansel to Hedwig) to escape the Iron Curtain via marriage to a GI, abandonment on her first anniversary in our nation’s heartland, romance and breakup with future rock superstar Tommy Gnosis – at the expense of plumbing the charismatic performer’s intensity, angst, and sheer ornery energy. Whether it was watching Ripley’s more disagreeable take on Hedwig or simply the objectivity, maturity, and wisdom that come with added years and experience, Ensley has immersed himself far more deeply into the pathology of our protagonist, projecting her twisted soul with a vocal fury and an explosiveness that would have been startling 11 years ago from the song-and-dance man. Additional kudos go to the professionalism of an actor who not only grew in his realization of what a role required but also put out the extreme effort to attain the physical conditioning that enabled him to execute those fresh insights. That scrupulous attention to detail extended to Ensley’s imitation of Tommy as Hedwig narrates the poisonous blossoming of their intimacy. It’s the most vivid Tommy we’ve seen in Charlotte, and Ensley slipped into him effortlessly.
As riveted as our attention is on Ensley, ATC Artistic Director Chip Decker, piloting Hedwig for the first time, also brings fresh ideas to the table – beginning with a roaring entrance for our heroine. Returning to a conventional box configuration after previous dalliances this season with thrust stagings, Decker has widened and deepened the usual playing area, keeping the whole look of the show more environmental. At the same time, Decker’s set design makes more lavish use of projections during Hedwig’s songs, helping to achieve the requisite rockin’ chaos of “The Origin of Love” and “The Angry Inch” without an undue assault on the eardrums.
Hedwig’s “angry inch” has double meaning, describing the remnants of her genitalia after the botched sex-change operation and functioning defiantly as the name of her sullen backup band. As she takes us through her story, the narrative punctuated by a concert is further punctuated by Hedwig shuttling to opposite ends of the stage to her two men. Every so often, she’ll open a door that looks out on a huge stadium where Tommy Gnosis is performing for his hordes of adoring fans – loudly enough to prove once again that, while he may not have been able to love the front of Hedwig, Tommy has found many ways to love himself. Usually slouched at the other end of the stage is Yitzhak, Hedwig’s scorned and downtrodden husband, who has given up cross-dressing for the unrequited love of his wife. Of all the women who have portrayed Yitzhak in Charlotte, Raquel Novo emerged as the manliest by far, and her solo to warm up Act II before Hedwig returned was a sizzler.
The band – and the Harley one of them rode in on – were also in a torrid zone, with Jeremy DeCarlos and Matt Carlson taking turns shredding their electric guitars and Ryan Stamey serving as music director and leading the quintet from the keyboard. Ensley and the band were high-energy throughout the 92-minute production on opening night, and with an “angry inch” extension to the middle of the stage, the star was frequently in our face. Leavening the defiance, Hedwig also ventured out into the audience on multiple occasions, and at one point, she also invited people in the front row to come onstage and share a dance. Just don’t expect any sloppy kisses from the diva. That would probably spoil the glitter in Hedwig’s lipstick, the coup de grâce of Clay Smith’s outstanding makeup design.
Hedwig and the Angry Inch continues through Saturday, January 25. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.