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April 3, 2005

Thanks to Stoneking, Theatre Building's Hedwig is anything but a drag

In the spirit of sharing that Hedwig and the Angry Inch engenders, I'm going to begin this review with a story.

I was going to start with a long account of how my friend Amy and I accidentally found ourselves in a sex-toy emporium on the corner of Belmont and Halsted, but then I decided that not only would this be hard to believe (although it's the truth), I would come across as a prude, and the story would eat into my valuable word count. The point is, we were in a sex shop. And really, what better way to begin an evening that culminated in a performance of Stephen Trask's gender-bending musical, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, at the Theatre Building Chicago?

It seemed appropriate to tell the clerk at the sex shop about our plans for later that night—Hedwig wouldn't have wanted it any other way. But the shopkeep had never heard of the show. "What's it about?" he wanted to know.

"Oh, it's about a transsexual German glam rocker," I replied. "The ‘angry inch' refers to the mound of flesh that's left of his penis after a botched sex-change operation."

The clerk glared at me, and suddenly, I felt as uncomfortable as, well, Mianne Bagger in her first LPGA tournament. (A little transsexual joke. Google the name.) "That's disgusting," the guy gasped—which I thought was a little rich, coming from someone who sells 13-inch dildos for a living.

That's exactly the type of intense reaction Hedwig and the Angry Inch will inspire. Do you chuckle at the couplet, "Where my penis used to be/ Where my vagina never was?" Do you enjoy interactive theater? Do you ever use the gender-neutral bathrooms in the Reg? Did you even know there were gender-neutral bathrooms in the Reg? If your answer to any of these questions is "no," stay away at all costs.

Except that would be a shame, because Hedwig is a phenomenal show. It's much better than the film adaptation by John Cameron Mitchell (whose anarchic spirit Keith Stoneking nevertheless channels in his incandescent performance as Hedwig). As for the rest of the cast, there are no real stand-outs. Alexandra Goodman, in particular, is a disappointment as Yitzhak, because we never once believe she could pass effectively as a man. Goodman also has the misfortune of performing the majority of the songs that were excised from the film version. Without the background material to guide us, we can't understand what the hell she's saying half the time.

But the real reason one comes to see Hedwig is to see Hedwig. As the title character, Stoneking camps and vamps. He sings incredibly affecting songs like "Origin of Love" and "Wig in a Box," and he bares all, both literally and metaphorically. He also fools around with the audience, to delightful effect. On opening night, he treated someone to a "car wash" (mounting himself on an audience member's arm rests and brushing that person's face with the fringe of his skirt). If you can, sit in an aisle seat in the front row, where the rows of seats split. This is the Hedwig equivalent of sitting in the poncho section at the Blue Man Group. You'll be on the receiving end of many a heart-wrenching ballad and inside joke. ("It was fun to play with you," Stoneking told Amy with a wink after the show.)

Each performance—or at least each revival—of Hedwig is unique because of the show's conceit. Hedwig, we learn in the opening monologue, is touring the country with his band, the Angry Inch. The goal of their impromptu journey is to follow the fictional megastar Tommy Gnosis from venue to venue (or, to be completely accurate, from venue to shoddy dive bar across the street). This gives the performers free reign to reference whatever theater is housing the show. This is often done dismissively, even disparagingly, but always in good fun.

"Here we are, at the Theatre Building Chicago," Stoneking croons into his microphone at one point, adding a welcome bit of local color. "It's a building… for theater…in Chicago. How did they ever come up with that name?"

Stoneking also proved to be a real pro at improvising. During the first act, two guys got up to leave, and while they eventually came back—I think they just went to the bathroom—it initially seemed like they were fleeing from the sexually-explicit material. "Goodbye," Hedwig cooed sweetly at each of them, but his subtext was clearly "good riddance."

Still, Hedwig and the Angry Inch is not a perfect show. The ending is still inexplicable (although slightly less inscrutable than the film version), and I'm not sure how well the cast members' voices projected. If I hadn't been sitting in the front row—and if I hadn't already seen the movie a number of times—I doubt I would have been able to follow the witty wordplay and rapid-fire styling of the lyrics. My friend didn't seem to have any problems, though.

A few more words about the building…for theater…in Chicago: They serve beer during the show ("The more you drink, the better the show," an usher informed us, not judgmentally), but it's five bucks a bottle, so drink fast to get that buzz. You'll probably be able to meet some cast members, too, if you skulk around the lobby for a few minutes after the show. This is a valuable networking skill I picked up last spring, when a guy I saw in Rent as part of the Broadway in Chicago series went on to make the Top Ten on this season's American Idol. (Vote Constantine!) Oh—and if you're waiting in the audience and you're not sure if the show has started already, it has.

So, in short, Hedwig and the Angry Inch is a wildly inventive, outrageous ride that has been done justice by the Theatre Building Chicago, especially the masterful Stoneking. It's not for everyone, though. You probably don't want to take your grandmother. Or, apparently, your local sex shop worker.