It hasn’t always been blindingly obvious that Hedwig and the Angry Inch is a riff on Plato’s “Symposium.” But the Greek fable it offers about the origin of love is at the heart of this hard-rock musical by John Cameron Mitchell (book) and Stephen Trask (music and lyrics) about “a mere slip of a girly boy from Communist East Germany” who became “the internationally ignored songstress barely standing before you.”
The tale of Hansel Schmidt/Hedwig Robinson follows Plato via a score that celebrates and evokes the grand, gritty rebel glam of Lou Reed and Ziggy Stardust-era David Bowie among other gloriously “strange rock and rollers.” Since it debuted off-Broadway in 1998, I’ve seen more productions of Hedwig than I can readily recall. The most recent incarnation, directed by Toma Tavares Langston at Theo Ubique, is not one I’ll soon forget.
Anchored by Will Lidke in the title role, Hedwig is a binary-breaking ode to survival and hope. It’s all-consuming, from the crackling, electrified “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee” vamp at the top of the show to “Midnight Radio,” the lighter-waving anthem that closes it.
Moreover, Theo Ubique’s shabby-glam, ultra-low-budget aesthetic and uber-intimate Evanston theater makes Hedwig up close and personal in a way that was impossible when the show played Broadway (and Broadway in Chicago) palaces. Unlike more amply funded Hedwigs, this one doesn’t have a complex light grid to provide kaleidoscopic distraction or an overdesigned car wreck set to pull focus away from the performers. Instead, our attention is all on Hedwig, and in Lidke’s performance, she’s lit from the inside out, a nova of charisma.
But let’s get back to Plato. Per Alcibiades, one of the speakers at the symposium in question, Earth was once a paradise populated by two-gender creatures. But these perfectly completed beings amassed too much power, so Zeus split them all in half with lightning bolts. Rent asunder, humans became doomed to spend their lives in search of their missing halves. For Hedwig, that search means a botched surgery to become a woman (leaving the “angry inch” of the title), a quickie marriage to an American GI, and then abandonment by the same in a Kansas trailer park.
Except as Lidke makes clear, nobody puts Hedwig in a corner, even when her songs have been stolen and her heart broken. Both happen at the hands of Tommy Speck (Jacob Gilchrist), who capitalizes on Hedwig’s songwriting skills and reinvents himself as rock star Tommy Gnosis. Tommy can fill arenas and dominate headlines. Hedwig will fill your heart.
The band’s growling bass undertow and buzzing steel-guitar strings could overwhelm less assured vocals, but Lidke maintains dominance throughout, sometimes with a bellowing rebel yell, sometimes with a falsetto as delicate as spun silver. You can gauge any Hedwig by the way the lead performs the ballads, and Lidke delivers them with the ferocity of Zeus hurling lightning. “The Origin of Love” is the sound of hearts shattering. “Midnight Radio” rolls over the theater like a benediction. “Sugar Daddy” sets toes tapping along with its gleefully obscene metaphors. “Wig in a Box” has the insouciant lilt of a mischievous child with a boundless imagination, an uncompromising eye for style, and the unshakable certainty that the bluest moods can be mitigated by a snazzy new coiffure.
Hedwig isn’t alone onstage. Brittney Brown plays Yitzhak, a former drag queen much used and abused by Hedwig as the two tour together. When Brown snarls through the percussive anger of “The Long Grift,” you can hear Yitzhak’s strength and defiance.
The foundation underpinning Hedwig is the Angry Inch band. Guitarists Jakob Smith and Perry Cowdery, bassist Joseph Drzemiecki, drummer Carlos Mendoza, and music director Jeremy Ramey on keys play with hair- whipping, head-banging, foot-stomping joy. The yowling strings on “Exquisite Corpse” will set your neurotransmitters vibrating like tuning forks; the thrust propelling “Tear Me Down” is volcanic.
Straddling genders and countries, Hedwig is micro and macro, a character and a symbol. Theo Ubique’s production shows both the individual looking for love in a strange new world and a fledgling country unsure of its place in that strange new world. Either way, this Hedwig closes over your head like water, the music flooding your neurotransmitters. It’s an affirmation that cannot be denied and that will (per the lyrics) hit you hard and fill you up. v