‘Hedwig’ balances sass and substance

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“It is clear that I must find my other half. But is it a he or a she? … Can two people actually become one again?” Fifteen minutes into the titular character’s monologue in “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” it becomes clear that this punk-rock musical is much more than just a bawdy, sensationalist show about a sex change gone horribly wrong.

The show begins with the transgender performer Hedwig (Brennan Caldwell ’12) sashaying in a platinum blond wig, red jumpsuit and Rollerblades. With the first sassy, raunchy number, the show begins as a caricature. But for all its potential to become a mediocre production that attracts an audience solely with its controversy, “Hedwig” does not succumb to the bait. Rather, it poignantly poses a fundamental question: what makes a person whole?

Hedwig was formerly Hansel, a boy from East Berlin who has a sexual encounter with Luther, a male U.S. soldier. To get married in Berlin, Hansel must undergo a sex change. But the surgery is botched, and Hansel (now Hedwig) is left with a scarred, dysfunctional mound of flesh between her legs. After the two move to a trailer park in America, Luther leaves Hedwig for another man. Hedwig develops feelings for a boy named Tommy, and the two write music together. She gives him his stage name, Tommy Gnosis, but he leaves Hedwig for greater fame with the music that she helped write.

The entirety of the play consists of Hedwig relating this story through extended monologue as she deals with Tommy’s rejection. Accompanying Hedwig is her “internationally ignored” band, The Angry Inch. As Hedwig gives her performance, Tommy Gnosis is giving a larger concert in an adjoining venue offstage; throughout the performance, Hedwig will open a door stage left to the sound of Tommy’s voice and the roar of an audience.

In perfect harmony with this performance-within-a-performance, the play extends past the stage and into the audience. Perched on a chair in the Calhoun Cabaret, I gradually felt part of the performance itself. “Hedwig” calls for audience interaction. During bits of the monologue, Hedwig traipses into the audience, interviewing people and handing out maracas and tambourines. Lyrics to sing along to are projected on the back wall. Director Charles Pollinger ’13 purposely chose the Calhoun Cabaret for its closeness. “I wanted a space that felt intimate and felt like a dinky space that Hedwig would make her own,” he said. “I wanted a real cabaret experience, so that it kind of feels like you’re forced to participate.”

But despite the audience interaction and the songs that make you want to dance, Hedwig is not gimmicky or (too) over-the-top. It is rife with tension and contains fascinating mythical motifs that all point to the same question: how can another person make a person whole? The number “The Origins of Love” tells a story from Greek mythology: human beings once had four arms, four legs, two heads — until angry gods split each into two. Humans spend lives searching for their “complement,” and sex is how fractured humans try to put themselves back together. The play cleverly uses the character of Hedwig to explore the question of finding how to complete oneself.

Caldwell completely assumes the demanding role of Hedwig. Though his movements are exaggeratedly feminine in the beginning, they more naturally straddle the line between masculine and feminine as the play progresses. His versatility is incredible — explosive during wild dance numbers, but measured during the more somber numbers. His speech is also sprinkled with self-referential gems. At one point, Hedwig drapes a colorful ivy garland around her neck and talks about her “Gay Ivy.” Hedwig also talks about her desire to “Fluff the Ivory Tower” and her insights on Sex Week (“Sex Week is for people who have sex, Love Week is for people who used to have sex”).

The production is a huge balancing act. It is an ambitious experiment — to display iconoclastic subject matter without distracting from the nuanced message. To balance the physical excess of the production — the drag, the naughty dancing and the mannequins wearing dildos — the monologue is marvelously controlled and understated. The sexual jokes are plentiful but subtle, and even the most absurdly dramatic scenes have a perfect touch of self-effacement. It is a play of opposites. Crayola drawings projected on the wall illustrate Greek mythology. The songs are bare and simple, in contrast to the flamboyant sexuality of the costumes and set. The poignance was tangible when Tommy Gnosis rejects Hedwig after discovering her physiological defect. As he makes excuses to leave, Hedwig’s unspoken anguish is tangible. In the end, the scene was more about love than lust.

The continuous climb of each scene, however, made the ending feel too rushed. Despite its flourish, the open-endedness may leave some audience members unsatisfied. But even without this closure, “Hedwig” managed to combine the raw spontaneity of a rock concert with the close personal feel of a one-person monologue.

“Hedwig and the Angry Inch” will be running at the Calhoun Cabaret at 8 p.m. from Feb. 9-11 and Feb. 16-18.

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