'Hedwig and the Angry Inch' — Shotgun Players pulls the wig down from the shelf

  • by Jim Gladstone
  • Tuesday November 7, 2023
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Pangaea Colter and Elizabeth Curtis in Shotgun Players' 'Hedwig and the Angry Inch' (photo: Ben Krantz)
Pangaea Colter and Elizabeth Curtis in Shotgun Players' 'Hedwig and the Angry Inch' (photo: Ben Krantz)

I'd love to tell you that last weekend I saw Hedwig and the Angry Inch play.

Alas, I can only report that I saw "Hedwig and the Angry Inch," the play.

As conceived by writer John Cameron Mitchell and composer/lyricist Stephen Trask back in 1997, "Hedwig"— now being presented by Berkeley's Shotgun Players — is intended to feel like a late night in a dive bar, not an evening at the theater. While thoroughly entertaining, this production falls short of achieving that goal.

"Hedwig" is the gut-spilling, Borscht belt-joking confessional of a Cold War-era East German lad who undergoes gender-reassignment surgery under duress; becomes a Kansas hausfrau; transforms himself into the wig-topped front person of a scrappy band; and finally, fatefully, takes on the musical mentorship of the teenage boy who will soon become a world-famous rock star, Tommy Gnosis. The whole show is set at a performance by its titular band.

It's structured more like a cabaret than a traditional work of musical theater, alternating songs and storytelling patter. With Shotgun, actors Pangaea Colter and Elizabeth Curtis take on the piece's two speaking-and-singing roles with impressive skill and stamina.

Shelley Doty and Pangaea Colter in Shotgun Players' 'Hedwig and the Angry Inch' (photo: Ben Krantz)  

As Hedwig, Colter — stunningly dressed in a series of knockout Buffalo Exchange-meets-Vivienne Westwood costumes by Kip Yanaga — seems fully at ease crafting her own somewhat warmer, less harsh take on a character closely linked to Mitchell, who originated the role on stage and in the film adaptation. (Hedwig's fabulous hairpieces by Bobby Friday are follicular miracles).

Playing Yitzhak, Hedwig's beleaguered second husband, Curtis stunningly shifts from hen-pecked to hellacious as the character gradually resumes his own agency, emerging from under Hedwig's thumb with a spine-tingling soprano wail.

Director Richard A. Mosqueda does a terrific job of cranking the emotion up to 11 in the power exchange among characters during the intermissionless 90-minute show's galvanizing final scenes.

"The Angry Inch" is played by self-proclaimed "black dyke rock band" Skip the Needle (Kofy Brown, Katie Cash, Shelley Doty, Vicki Randall) and they attack with a plangent fury that carries the show on a wave of sound from start to finish.

The abstract expressiveness of their playing and Trask's score effectively overrides the narrative loose ends and philosophical shagginess of Mitchell's book.

Pangaea Colter in Shotgun Players' 'Hedwig and the Angry Inch' (photo: Ben Krantz)  

Tear me down
Even with all its strengths, this "Hedwig" doesn't make it to the head of the class.

The show was originally developed in the sort of lovably cruddy watering holes where it's meant to take place. Hedwig and her band were the ragged entertainment; audience members, the bar's patrons. Audience members close to the band could get sweat, spit and sat upon. Hole-in-the-walls have no fourth walls.

When it moved Off-Broadway, the intimate Westbeth and Jane Street theaters were dolled up CBGB-style. And even after the show had built a following large enough to merit a revival on the main stem in 2015, the script was slightly altered to explain why a ragtag band like Hedwig's would be playing in such a large, formal house:

The Belasco Theater, Hedwig now explained, was unexpectedly available after the one-night flop and closure of "The Hurt Locker: The Musical." The stage indeed appeared as if it had been hastily vacated by a much larger production, with dropcloths covering left-behind set pieces.

Staying true to the show's conceit, the venue played itself. This script iteration was also used on a national tour that played the Golden Gate Theatre in 2016.

Pangaea Colter in Shotgun Players' 'Hedwig and the Angry Inch' (photo: Ben Krantz)  

Hedwig's lament
Shotgun Players is routinely equal or better than any theater in the Bay Area when it comes to set design, providing visual elements that illuminate and enrich their productions' performances and scripts. Recently, with "Triumph of Love" and especially "Pierre, Natasha and the Great Comet of 1812," directors and designers have dramatically reconfigured the auditorium to create successfully immersive environments.

For "Hedwig." though, Mosqueda and company have inexplicably retained the room's most traditional configuration, and it particularly hampers this show. Unlike a bar with conventional flooring, or a large theater where the floor has a subtle rake, Shotgun's Ashby Avenue venue (in its basic arrangement) features a main stage situated at the bottom of a steep, bleacher-like incline of seating (Imagine perching on the diagonal side of a tall wedge).

In a literal and highly exaggerated sense, audience members are not on the same level as the characters. In fact, for the most part, they're looking down on them. That's counter to the creative concept of "Hedwig and the Angry Inch," which was written (and then rewritten) to put spectators on uncomfortably even footing with the performers.

Elizabeth Curtis as Yitzahk in Shotgun Players' 'Hedwig and the Angry Inch' (photo: Ben Krantz)  

Wig in a box
One of the great strengths of "Hedwig" is the show's we're here, we're in your face, get used to us presentation of genderqueerness. But this staging makes genderqueerness a spectacle, a show to be watched from a safe distance.

About a dozen audience members are seated on chairs within the performers' playing space, as if they're the patrons of the joint where Hedwig and company are gigging. While intended to create an immersive effect for these few viewers, it actually heightens the sense of distance felt by the vast majority of attendees (The people in the bar are in the show; we're not).

On stage, scenic designer Carlos Aceves has created a minutely detailed dive, with community flyers taped up everywhere and endless bric-a-brac filling any nook or cranny. But rather than extending onto the walls of the angled seating area, which might have done at least a little bit to help the spaces cohere, the décor stops cold at the lip of the stage. From the main seats, it feels as if you're looking into a giant diorama. It's meticulously crafted, but you're very much at a remove.

At a few points over the course of the evening, Colter steps up onto a raised box that protrudes into the first few rows of angled seating. For most of her time there, she turns her back to the rake and sings to the onstage seats. And once again, for most of the audience, Hedwig and company feel far more than inches away.

'Hedwig and the Angry Inch,' through Dec. 17. $28-$54. 1901 Ashby Ave, Berkeley. (510) 841-6500. www.shotgunplayers.org

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