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Those that pay attention to such things may recall that Raleigh Little Theatre was slated to produce the much acclaimed Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson in its May slot. However, new Artistic Director Patrick Torres decided against Jackson after a series of conversations with leaders of the local Native American community convinced him it would be impossible to present the play without offending. The play’s flippant depiction of the forced relocation of Native Americans through the Trail of Tears specifically drew offense and made the play unproducible to Torres. The conversations about and choice against Jackson showed a level of care for community and for minority groups not readily seen in many artistic circles. But the choice of Jackon’s replacement musical would truly show just what sort of Artistic Director Torres intends to be. So what does Hedwig and the Angry Inch say about this new Raleigh Little Theatre? Certainly not that it hopes to be inoffensive. (Since when is rock and roll inoffensive?) Similar to Rocky Horror Picture Show or La Cage aux Folles, the loud and brash Hedwig creates a space that normalizes and celebrates differences in sexuality and gender identity. All to the rhythm of show-stopping rock and roll numbers.
Central to the play is our heroine, Hedwig, born Hansel. In an attempt to flee Eastern Germany, Hedwig marries an American GI and undergoes a sex-change operation, eventually donning a wig and pursuing her love of American music with her band, The Angry Inch. Hedwig’s transformation and tragic search for love is told in a series of monologues and rock ballads. The play (directed by Jesse R. Gephart) is, in fact, essentially a one-person show, and the energy is crafted largely by Hedwig, played here by Chris Maxwell. Maxwell was electric as Hedwig. He had the energy and charisma of a rock star and was nearly on fire the entire 90 minutes he was on stage. Maxwell is accompanied by the wonderful Lydia D. Kinton, who appears here as Yitzhak, Hedwig’s nearly silent partner, husband, and back up singer. Meanwhile, Hedwig’s ex-boyfriend and soul mate, Tommy Gnosis, is playing in an adjacent venue outside to a much larger and much more adoring audience. Hedwig’s been following him, it seems, on his tour, playing at nearby dive bars.
The dive bar scene is successfully rendered by designer Thomas Mauney in the flexible Gaddy-Goodwin Teaching Theatre, and patrons have the option to sit close to the action at tabletop seats surrounding the thrust stage. But be warned, sitting this close gives Hedwig permission to harass. Lighting designer Cailen Waddell boasts in the program that he’s squeezed more lights than ever into the space. I wouldn’t be surprised, spotting a disco ball and two follow spots, and the effect is a true rock and roll atmosphere. Projections accompany the music with animations and video, but the projection screens are too small and too oddly placed to give it the effect it deserves.
The winning element of Hedwig and the Angry Inch is the music. Through the original score by Stephen Trask, we hear elements of David Bowie, Lou Reed, Elton John, John Lennon, The Ramones; the list goes on. It’s a regular tour through American rock and roll. There’s so much rock here that the house management at RLT felt it necessary to hand out earplugs before the show. But earplugs are for squares.
In the end, was Hedwig a better choice than Jackson? Jackson was initially released on the heels of the populist Tea Party Movement that shook our political system, the same way Andrew Jackson did in the not so distant history. The play attempted to capture the political chaos we were in at the time. But the current election cycle seems a little more dictated by the establishment, with the apparent battle being between the all too familiar Clinton and Bush names. Perhaps Hedwig’s focus on a transgendered character speaks more to the current political moment: Barack Obama made history this year by being the first President to use the word “transgender” during the State of the Union Address, Bruce Jenner opened minds and hearts with his much-publicized interview over his personal struggle with gender identity, and the Supreme Court currently is in the midst of arguing the constitutionality of gay marriage. The issue of the treatment of LGBT people has never been more on the forefront of our daily lives than right now. RLT’s Hedwig speaks to this historical moment, or perhaps rocks to it.
Hedwig and the Angry Inch continues through Sunday, May 24. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.