A 90-Minute Rock Monologue
The Cold War. Duality. Gender Identity. Sexuality. Pop culture. Wig-based existentialism. Hedwig and the Angry Inch is about so many things that it’s easy to forget that it’s one guy onstage delivering most of the story. We get the character’s entire biography between and within a series of songs and a few costume changes. There’s a lot of decoration, but at its heart, it’s still just one person’s story. It's less of a rock opera and more of a rock monologue. This month All-In Productions stages the monologue in a dreamy, fully-rendered fugue featuring a full band in full costume. 90 minute slips away without intermission. Then there’s applause.
Sometimes it Can Feel Like An Audition
An intimate show in an intimate space can connect an audience with a performance like nothing else. There’s that direct fusion between material, performer, characters, audience and venue that can be transcendental. Or it can feel a bit like an audition. In the role of Hedwig Brett Sweeney is a very talented vocalist. He’s a very precise actor. There’s a very thoughtful symmetry to his construction of the complex psyche of a personality caught between genders, cultures and so much else. Somewhere along the line, though it starts to feel like a really elaborate 90-minute audition. I don’t know...maybe it was the precision and careful emotional composition of it all. Maybe that’s what gave me the impression. Try as hard as I could to shake, it, the audition impression stuck with me throughout the entire show. Sweeney is an immensely talented performer. The role he's auditioning for is really interesting, It doesn't feel like Hedwig to me, though.
Rock vs. Musical
This is the 3rd or 4th production I’ve seen of the show. Hedwig always felt like a powerfully...almost explosively fragile character to me. Hedwig is caught between so many dichotomies...so many opposing charges from opposing forces that it feels like the whole thing could detonate at any time. There’s a heartbreaking vulnerability in that. Years ago I saw former Milwaukee actor Jordan Gwiazdowski in a staging of the musical on a smaller stage. He openly embraced the character’s vulnerability. Sweeney doesn’t exactly avoid Hedwig’s vulnerability. (It would be really difficult to do so.) Opening night it didn’t feel to me like he was embracing Hedwig's fragility on an emotional level, though. Sweeney carefully places the character’s tenuous fragility into a well-proportioned performance structure that approaches a kind of technical perfection. When rock is true to rock, though...it isn’t about perfection, though. It’s messy and ugly and passionate. That’s the way it feels most natural to me.
Over the course of the show, it’s difficult not to appreciate the Hedwig that Sweeney is presenting here. He’s wearing the role like a complex mask...rendering a cold character of great strength. Sweeney’s Hedwig has powered through a lot, He wears awkwardness and imperfection like its own kind of armor. It’s all a part of the show and we’re all a part of it. It’s not a show without an audience...so we’re there to complete the equation that gives this Hedwig meaning. Sweeney’s Hedwig feels almost...sinister. Vulnerability is bent and twisted around a resilience that is still feigning a kind of fragility. Sweeney’s not betraying the spirit of the character, though. So we learn to sympathize with the sinister artifice. It’s a very clever approach. Sweeney's Hedwig is a cunning anti-hero. There's a really interesting depth to it. It's good. I just wish I liked it more. I guess I’m still haunted by the phantom of Gwiazdowski’s much more openly emotional punk rendering of the character.
The Rest of It
There’s a lot going on in the space around Hedwig. Director Robby McGhee has fostered an environment that allows Hedwig a cleverly-textured backdrop. The title character’s name towers over everything in the background. There’s the full set-up of a rock and roll show. On first glance, there's nothing much there. Just a band. It’s the little things, though: a couple of cans of cheap American lager rest not far from what appears to be a full bottle of vodka resting in a mic stand. The band has a scrappy, scavenged ragtag look about it. We get the feeling that every one in the band has a story every bit as fascinating as that of the lead singer. Ken Marchand is a saddened, tortured-looking animal in white face paint resting behind a drum kit. Guitarist Joey Chelius (of the local ’80s alt pop band Bueller Bueller) seems to be tightly patched together from various parts of other musicians. Lights, costuming and overall energy give the impression that the whole band has been through a lot...and no one has been through more than backup vocalist Yitzhak.
Hedwig’s love can come in the form of abuse. No one is more abused than Yitzhak, who is played here by a very aggressive and emotionally combustible Lydia Rose Eiche. She’s always there in the background. She knows that if she gets too close, she’s going to lose Hedwig. Over time she begins to wonder if it’s worth it. The character isn’t given much room to relay all of this to the audience, but Eiche does a brilliant job of bringing it across. She's living and breathing the kind of rock and roll that feels real to me. She’s a much-needed counterpoint to Sweeney’s perfect cold poise as Hedwig. There’s a moment between her and Chelius that ushers-in one of the most aggressive moments in the show. It’s a surprisingly satisfying exchange given the fact that it’s not terribly central to the plot. The best moments of this production lurk around in the corners like cans of cheap American lager. Those moments speak to something beyond the moment...like tortured visage of a drummer in white face paint staring blankly into the haze of the stage. There's something there that's bigger than what we're seeing.
All In Productions’ staging of Hedwig and the Angry Inch runs through Sep. 15 at the Next Act Theatre on 255 S. Water St. for ticket reservations, visit All In online.