Is Hedwig Schmidt ever a hard-luck case. A washed-up transgender glam-rock singer from the former East Germany, she has a hostile sidekick named Yitzak and an agent who won't come to see her act. Her name has been smeared by scandal. The only endorsement deal she can land is an extremely dubious one, as the official spokesperson for "Greater Serbia."
In less-than-ideal circumstances, Hedwig might strike some as plainly Euro-pathetic. But let me tell you, in the thrillingly capable hands of Rick Hammerly, Hedwig walks onto the stage of the Warehouse Theatre a has-been, and she leaves it an unstoppable star.
I've ceased counting the number of times I've seen the hilarious and raucously tuneful "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" since I first encountered the show in a workshop production in Manhattan's West Village in, as Hedwig herself might say, the late mid-'90s. Among the performers I've watched in the part -- from its creator, John Cameron Mitchell, to actor Michael Cerveris (seen here last summer in "Passion") to actress Ally Sheedy and on and on -- Hammerly manages to carve a special niche for himself. Simply put, he's the funniest Hedwig I've ever experienced.
"Hedwig" is making a return engagement in the Washington area, having finished a successful run at Signature Theatre last year. The theater has moved the show downtown, to a smaller, coarser space. There is a row of tables around the stage, giving the production the seedy-dive feel it so needs. It's one of the crafty touches that director Eric Schaeffer added to the show, small but significant embroidery that helps to make this evening with Hedwig even more deeply enjoyable.
The piece is a smart-alecky hybrid, which puts off some people. It's both a parody of those maudlin, confessional club acts that the fallen stars of show biz have been known to indulge in, and a complex and moving exploration of sexual identity. Believe it or not, one of the inspirations for the show is Aristophanes' discussion of love in Plato's "Symposium," a dissertation brought brilliantly to musical life by composer Stephen Trask in Hedwig's ballad "The Origin of Love."
Essentially, "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" is Hedwig's first-person account of her wild progression from confused teenage boy in Soviet-era East Berlin to disposable American housewife to trashy traveling lounge act. Backed up by the enigmatic Yitzak (Lynn Filusch) and the band, the Angry Inch, Hedwig recounts the sordid details that have led her to a cheesy D.C. gig, events that included her botched sex-change operation -- the other "angry inch" in her life.
Decked out in the ridiculous blond tresses, hot pants and glitter eye shadow that reflect her sense of self-loathing, Hedwig shares the story of her relentless decline. She peppers the evening with sardonic double-entendres and caustic asides about Toni Tennille, trailer parks and other weird bits of pop cultural flotsam. And above all, she reserves her most cutting remarks for Tommy Gnosis, the young, unseen rock genius whom she groomed for stardom, only to be left in his dust.
But "Hedwig" is also the tale of a psyche divided against itself, of a person desperately seeking to reconcile her/himself with a black-and-white world of gender and identity that does not tolerate gray very well. Hedwig sings about her search for her other half, the missing puzzle piece that would complete her. (Whether Tommy Gnosis actually exists -- are Hedwig and Tommy one and the same? -- is left vague.) It's a sort of worldwide Misfit Club that Hedwig heads up, one in which, we come to understand, all of us could claim membership.
Mitchell, who wrote and originated the part and then directed and starred in the 2001 movie version, played Hedwig with something of a sneer on his lip. There seemed to be a layer of Teutonic contempt in the portrayal, which made Hedwig a little dangerous, and a little crazy: She loved us and hated us, too. Hammerly is a more magnetically comic Hedwig. It's clear he was born for the role of jester; like the office cutup, he can't help himself, and really, who'd want him to? The result is a Hedwig who is less conflicted, more addicted to the limelight. Sure, her life is full of pain, but if her trials make you laugh, she's not so sure they weren't worth it. The portrayal is different from others I've seen, and in some ways more attuned to the show's witty streak.
Trask's score has never sounded better; Hammerly's tender renditions of blissfully melodic songs like "Wig in a Box" and "Wicked Little Town" show off his emotional range. And the backup band is splendidly robust without blasting us out of our seats. Schaeffer has a nifty prop fall from the ceiling during the country-inflected "Sugar Daddy" and, with the help of lighting designer Chris Lee, backlights Hedwig beautifully as she undergoes her final metamorphosis.
In casting Hedwig in shadow, however, the effect does detract somewhat from our absorbing the catharsis of the moment. Still, it's always been a muddy sequence in the show, and maybe emerging from darkness is the right visual cue for Hedwig's ultimate move toward self-acceptance.
Filusch, meanwhile, is a strong and surprisingly virile Yitzak; Anne Kennedy dresses Hammerly outrageously as a cross between Cher and Cyndi Lauper; Michael Clark's projections are primitively on the money, and James Kronzer's set makes optimal use of the Warehouse stage.
Which Hammerly treads with all the tentativeness of a buffalo stampede. By all means, get there, and you too can feel the floorboards rattle.
Hedwig and the Angry Inch, text by John Cameron Mitchell; music and lyrics by Stephen Trask. Directed by Eric Schaeffer. Sound, Tony Angelini. With John Jester, Mike Kozemchak, Steve McWilliams, Matthew Midgette and Stephen Gregory Smith. Approximately 1 hour 40 minutes. Through May 25 at the Warehouse Theatre, 1021 Seventh St. NW. Call 800-955-5566 or visit www.signature-theatre.org