A drag queen with big hair singing into a mic and looking at the camera
Pangaea Colter as Hedwig. Credit: Ben Krantz Photos

What a fun, outrageous, loud, rockin’ evening the Shotgun Players presented to its appreciative opening night audience last week. Written by John Cameron Mitchell, with lyrics and music by Stephen Trask, the storied Tony Award-winning rock musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch seemed thoroughly contemporary. However, it was first performed off-Broadway in 1998 with John Cameron Mitchell as Hedwig. The musical was then a hit on Broadway, became a well-regarded movie (again starring John Cameron Mitchell) in 2001, and was revived on Broadway starring Neil Patrick Harris in 2014.

So, what’s the enduring draw of Hedwig and the Angry Inch? Yes, it’s about the alternatively raucous and melodic music, but it’s equally about the funny, sad, and ultimately satisfying tale of Hedwig’s long, lonely search for individuality, freedom and love.

The audience watches Hedwig perform and tell her story to the few patrons sitting on the stage, which is done up by scenic designer Calos Aceves like a Berkeley dive bar, complete with multi-levels filled with old beer signs, junk and other detritus, where you’d expect Hedwig and the band, The Angry Inch, to perform.

And perform they do — and they are all fabulous. Actress and drag performer Pangaea Colter shines as Hedwig, actress and fantastic vocalist Elizabeth Curtis stars as Hedwig’s husband, Yitzhak, and the Black dyke rock quartet Skip the Needle performs as The Angry Inch band. Director Richard A. Mosqueda pulls the performance together, engaging even the inhibited in the audience.

We learn that Hedwig, born as Hansel, was a lonely gay teen in the former East Germany who loved the American rock and roll he heard on Armed Forces radio. His soldier/lover persuaded Hansel to have sex reassignment surgery so the two of them could leave Communist East Germany for the U.S. as man and wife. The operation is botched, however, leaving Hansel, now renamed Hedwig, with a dysfunctional one-inch mound of flesh between her legs — the “Angry Inch.”

Once in the U.S. and abandoned by her soldier/husband, Hedwig babysits for Tommy Speck, the son of the commander of the nearby fort. He’s a misunderstood teenager re-examining his Christian upbringing. Hedwig teaches him how to be the rock and roll star he later becomes, using the stage name Hedwig created, “Tommy Gnosis.” (Gnosis is the Greek word for knowledge.) The physical relationship fails, and Tommy leaves Hedwig, steals all Hedwig’s songs, and becomes a mega-rock star. When we meet Hedwig, she is following Tommy Gnosis’ multi-million-dollar national tour. Hedwig opens a door at one point, and we hear the booming noise of Tommy’s success.  

Part of the brilliance of Hedwig and the Angry Inch is that despite its rock music, sophisticated lyrics, humor and extravagant campiness (great costumes by Kip Yanaga), there are very real emotional underpinnings in the lost souls it depicts. And that may be because the crux of the story harks back to John Cameron Mitchell’s young life as a lonely Army general’s son, struggling with his sexuality.

Some audience members will just enjoy the music, while others will find comfort in Hedwig’s struggle for acceptance and identity. But don’t miss this fabulous theatrical and musical experience.  

Hedwig runs 100 minutes without an intermission at the Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby Ave., Berkeley, through Dec. 17. Mask-wearing is encouraged but not required, except on identified “masked matinees.” General admission ticket prices are $10-$54. Pay what you can $0–$40; MAD. Tickets for those 25 and under are $10 with discount code MADTIX; Community Tickets for those facing financial hardship are $15 with discount code COMMUNITY. Tickets are free for individuals who self-identify as transgender persons of color with code TPOC4FREE.

Shotgun offers a special haptic tour and audio-described performance for blind and low-vision patrons on Sunday, Nov. 12, with a haptic tour at 4:00 p.m., followed by the performance at 5 p.m. Reservations are encouraged. More information can be found at the Shotgun Players website or by calling 510-841-6500, ext. 303.

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Emily S. Mendel reviews Berkeley’s vibrant theater scene for Berkeleyside. As a native New Yorker (although an East Bay resident for most of her life), Emily grew up loving and studying theater, from...