The Fringe Festival is a relatively new theater experience in Pittsburgh, showcasing alternative, experimental plays. The festival started in Pittsburgh in 2014, and can also be found popping up in cities around the world where alternative theater fights back against the mainstream. This year, the Fringe Festival offered a familiar name to me amidst their original content: Hedwig. I didn’t have the time (or money) to go to all of the Fringe shows, but I knew that I couldn’t pass up an opportunity to see Hedwig and the Angry Inch. The show has meant many things to many people over the years, and I won’t go into detail about how long I’ve been a fan or the many ways it changed the lives of both myself, and my friends. It is a familiar story, one that can be echoed by so many fans.
Hedwig and the Angry Inch began onstage in the 1990’s, conceived by John Cameron Mitchell and Stephen Trask. Mitchell developed the character of Hedwig over the years, performing in clubs as a rock concert with a backup band: ‘the Angry Inch.’ The show ran off-Broadway in New York City for two years before it evolved into the next form of Hedwig: a feature film that was released in 2001. The film has often been dubbed a ‘rock opera’ in the vein of Rocky Horror and Velvet Goldmine, and the themes of gender fluidity and homosexuality are evident in all three cult films. Hedwig herself is the product of a botched sex change that left her with nothing more than an ‘angry inch’ to work with. This is a topic that is still be shocking to many, perhaps why Hedwig is still on the fringe of mainstream culture, despite nearly twenty years of popularity both on stage and screen.
In the Pittsburgh Fringe version of the show, Hedwig was played by Ryan Borgo, a recipient of the Gene Kelly award for best actor in 2014. Borgo’s version of Hedwig was definitively based on Mitchell’s performance, his voice adeptly mimicking Hedwig’s lilt in speech. The character of Yitzhak was played by CMU grad, Chelsea Bartel, whose Yitzhak expressed both simmering anger and a haunted desperate love for the title character with very few words. It is interesting to compare and contrast the Broadway version of Hedwig and the Angry Inch with the smaller production that showed in Pittsburgh over the weekend. Hedwig only came to Broadway last year, where both Neil Patrick Harris and Michael C. Hall played the role before John Cameron Mitchell stepped back into the role he made famous. (The role has since passed to Darren Criss, of Glee and A Very Potter Musical fame). I had the opportunity to see Hedwig on Broadway in March, with Mitchell once again in the starring role.
The Fringe version of show was performed in the North Side at The New Bohemian: an old church that has been converted into a tattoo parlor and performance space. It felt exactly like the type of place Hedwig would perform. The size of the space was intimate compared to the Belasco Theater in NYC where I saw Mitchell’s performance from an upper balcony and had to strain to peer over the edge to see whenever Hedwig came out into the crowd. The show is known for its audience participation, and I got to experience this firsthand sitting in the front row. During the song ‘Sugar Daddy,’ an audience member is brought onto stage for a special lap dance from Hedwig. My boyfriend got to experience this first hand. (He had forgotten about the audience participation. I had not.) As I sat in the front row photographing my embarrassed boyfriend laughing through the whole thing, I suddenly felt part of the production. This feeling wasn’t hurt by the fact that (I believe) I was one of the few people in the audience who was familiar with the show, and my habit of singing along marked me as a potential target. I spent the whole show waiting for Borgo to adlib a line about the paparazzi being there as I photographed him up close. Instead I got my glasses licked and a proclamation from Hedwig: “I can taste everything you’ve seen!”
Borgo was a powerful Hedwig. He brought both a vulnerability and a fierceness to the role that echoed Mitchell. From the front row, I could see tears in his eyes as he performed ‘The Origin of Love’ and ‘Wicked Little Town,’ two of my favorite songs from the show that he executed beautifully. Borgo told me that he had only come into the role a week prior and had only been familiar with the show and film for a year, but he played Hedwig as if he had been practicing for years.
The difference between the slick production of the movie, and the messiness of the stage show is an interesting study in contrasts. Onstage, Hedwig can cycle through variations of theatrical style. The show is a cabaret, a comedy performance, a rock concert, and a confessional. The film version follows the format of the original show musically, but some of the mysteries of the show are clarified onscreen in ways that differ from what can be seen and interpreted by a live audience.
One of the differences between the movie and the show is that the film focuses much more on Hedwig’s relationship with Tommy Gnosis, her former protégé who has stolen the music she wrote and become famous. The show, however, tends to focus far more on the relationship between Hedwig and her ‘husband’ Yitzhak. Tony-award winner Lena Hall played the role of Yitzhak beautifully in New York. The juxtaposition of her powerfully female voice coming from a seemingly male character is always thrilling.
Bartel’s Yitzhak was equally as strong. The character is tricky to handle, as so much of the acting must be done non-verbally. Bartel managed to express Yitzhak’s emotions clearly, expressions playing across her face quickly transforming from exasperation, to pain, to a tortured love, underpinned by a slow-burning anger. All of these emotions are directed at Hedwig, until they can no longer be ignored. Yitzhak’s shining moment is always a solo performance of the song ‘The Long Grift.” In the film version, this song is sung by Tommy Gnosis and had never been a favorite of mine until I first saw the stage production and heard the Yitzhak version. Lena Hall threw herself into this song onstage with a ferocity that is different from Bartel’s version. Instead of the anger that is typically explosive in the song when performed by Hall, Bartel infused the song with a sadness that cuts a line straight down through the heart.
Borgo told me that the director of the show, Nick Hrutkay, wanted a grungier Hedwig for this performance and that was certainly what I saw. John Cameron Mitchell has been playing Hedwig for almost two decades, and he lives in the role of the character. Mitchell’s Hedwig is polished smooth, glamorous, despite all of the tense undercurrents that eventually show up as cracks in the smooth façade of makeup. Borgo’s Hedwig was wild and manic, veering wildly from joy to despair with makeup running down a sweaty face, wig askew. As I watched Borgo up close from the front row of a small performance space, I could see all of Hedwig’s imperfections and I wondered if this is how it felt to see Hedwig back in the late ‘90s when Mitchell was still performing in clubs in drag, trying to perfect the character. It was an interesting contrast, to see young actors exploring these roles for the first time as opposed to the veterans who have been doing it for so long.
Hedwig has seen a bit of a revival in recent years. The familiar themes of love, loss, betrayal, and a search for identity have resonated for fans across many years and incarnations. Both the show and the film have enjoyed cult followings, but it seems as though Hedwig is starting to (dare I say it) enter the mainstream despite her presence on the Fringe as she still is. In a 2014 interview with the CBC, John Cameron Mitchell stated that Hedwig is meant to be a queer voice, but not necessarily an icon for transgender individuals. Hedwig is “more than any God could ever plan, more than a woman or a man.” Despite this, Hedwig still retains a bit of revolutionary history for addressing gender identity and queer issues at a time when few people were discussing it. These issues are now debated heavily in religion and politics, yet a growing number of young people have already grown up with an increased acceptance and awareness of these issues. Throughout all of this, Hedwig and the Angry Inch persists over the years as a powerful story of learning to understand one’s own identity, and accept it. I think that continues to resonate with all of us, man or woman, gay or straight, or somewhere in between.