Embrace every inch
Hedwig and the Angry Inch
The tragic, divine and triumphant journey of Hedwig, née Hansel Schmidt, an East German boy who became (and not entirely successfully) a girl in order to escape the repressive Communist regime is given its due in the inaugural production by Sacramento’s New Helvetia Theatre.
As Hedwig, Christopher Davis Carlisle evokes both the depth of pain and the heights of diva that make up the semi-transgendered rock star. Hedwig’s surgery was not successful; she’s left with an inch, and boy, is she angry. Her rage is also directed at Tommy Gnosis, the young rock god she helped to create—and was abandoned by—and who is, coincidentally, playing at Raley Field as Hedwig begins her show. Also caught up in the flailing, frustrated anger is Hedwig’s current husband, Yitzhak (Nanci Zoppi), condemned by Hedwig’s ego to forgo his desire for drag.
But Hedwig and the Angry Inch is not all rage and frustration; that might make for good rock music (of which there is plenty), but it’s not enough for a successful night of theater. For every ounce of rage, Carlisle successfully imbues Hedwig with a pound of irony-laced humor. Her tongue is razor-sharp, as are her wits, and she leads the audience on a retrospective of her life in music. Carlisle, a Los Angeleno, is physically perfect for the role: slight, lean, long and vulnerable. His Hedwig lives in the borderlands; neither male nor female, East nor West, gay nor straight, she is always balancing on the wall that divides her world.
Hedwig storytelling is assisted, in this production, with film, photographs (by Janine Mapurunga) and illustrations (by artist Emma San Cartier, who also has a display of her work in the theater’s lobby, the Cafe Refugio). This not only successfully creates the scene—especially the desperation of walled-in East Berlin—but also helps to break the monologue out of its box so that Hedwig gains almost as much visual as emotional depth.
Further adding depth is the late-80s industrial-style set (designed by Connor Mickiewicz, Tim Mickiewicz and Hedwig director Matthew Schneider), which includes bits of technology such as a microwave and a conventional oven, old television tubes, stereo components and a refrigerator. It not only creates the scene, it doubles as prop storage space, which keeps the show’s pacing spot on.
But by far the strongest decision in this production of Hedwig was the use of a real band, the New Humans, to play the Angry Inch. Their playing—especially in a style that is different from their own sound, with more emphasis on guitar-rock and less use of the keyboards—is perfect, and they bring just a touch of “jaded rock band” to the mix.
And if New Helvetia’s artistic director, Connor Mickiewicz, is “obsessed” with Zoppi (see “A whole new theater,” SN&R Stage Pick Web Extra, June 4), he’ll most certainly be joined by a crew of compatriots after this production. Zoppi is wonderfully understated as Hedwig’s Eastern European husband, right up until she opens her mouth. Her harmonies with Carlisle are seamless, and when she sings solo—well, “obsession” is indeed the right word to use for the feelings evoked.
Hedwig and the Angry Inch heralds an auspicious beginning for Sacramento’s newest professional musical-theater company. Don’t fear the anger; embrace every inch of it.