In two decades of performances, John Cameron Mitchell and Stephen Trask’s Hedwig and the Angry Inch has seen many performers, male and female, embody Hedwig, the bawdy, self-assured, third-tier German-American rock goddess who is sort-of-but-not-exactly transgender. As Hedwig tours the country following a successful Broadway revival that initially starred Neil Patrick Harris, audiences will potentially get to see a few more men and women take on the role, including Tony Award winning featured actress Lena Hall, who reprises the role of Yitzhak in the current SHN production, and who will play Hedwig herself on Wednesday nights during the San Francisco run and for other select performances. But for now, TV star Darren Criss, who has proven his acting and singing chops on Glee, is tackling the extremely demanding role six nights a week. Criss gets to prove his ability to command a stage, virtually by himself, for the better part of 90 minutes while rocking, dancing, wailing, holding court, and changing wigs about eight times.
With regard to the Hedwig character I say “sort of but not exactly” transgender because Mitchell himself has said as much in interviews. That's to say his gender-non-conforming heroine, born Hansel to an East German mother who arranges a botched sex change by a dubious surgeon so that her child can escape Berlin as the wife of an American GI, may not identify as transgender in the sense with which we're now familiar, leading me to ask if the 1998 play has already become a relic of an era when transgender people remained less visible and understood than they are today.
Criss is strong in the role, and at some moments even transcendent in his immersion into the character. That's particularly true once he hits his stride in the second half or at least by the time he launches into the show’s single catchy, rollicking number, “Wig in a Box.” But given that he must carry the show, its ultimate success or failure falls entirely on him and how quickly he finds that stride in any given performance. I once saw Mitchell perform the role off-Broadway way back when, and though I never caught Harris in the role, there's little doubt that he's more the caliber of seasoned, stage-stomping, eminently confident performer to take on the role than Criss — but I can see Criss growing into those glittery, high-heeled platform boots in time. Hedwig must, above all else, own that stage and the audience’s attention the moment she explodes onto it, and Criss feels a bit like he’s borrowing it for now, with an option to buy. Yet his legions of loyal fans from Glee will no doubt forgive the subtlety of this difference (as the standing ovation proved at the performance I viewed).
Hall, meanwhile, who’s had many hundreds more performances under her belt as Hedwig’s beleaguered husband turned stage-hand and co-star Yitzhak, is amazing at virtually every turn especially, near the show’s climax, where Yitzhak stands in the spotlight, finally allowed to shine, taking in the audience’s adoration with the crookedest, most reluctant of smiles. One brief moment in which she’s called upon to do her best Whitney Houston, on a distant radio, singing “I Will Always Love You,” is particularly impressive. Hall, like Criss, is a Bay Area native, making this all the more a meaningful homecoming for both of them.
Returning to the theme of gender and its confusion, one pivotal moment in the production leaves Hedwig, as played by Criss (as with Harris before him) nearly naked, his muscled, masculine body on stage by the show’s end, which further confounds what the audience is led to believe with regard to Hedwig’s chosen gender presentation throughout the show. The moment leaves me, as a San Francisco journalist who tries always to be on the correct side of these things, a little bit troubled in 2016 about how to read the play, or this production. Mitchell would probably say that I’m being too literal, or gender normative — Hedwig, and her useless one-inch “mound of flesh” in place of genitalia, represents an in between, and a sexual being who manages to lead a life, albeit a frustrated one, in that liminal space, as many queer and gender non-conforming people do. It’s a specific story more than a general parable, and perhaps we should embrace it as such, enjoying the rock opera rather than trying to impose a lesson about trans acceptance here.
Yet it certainly felt like Mitchell was trying to craft just such a message in the mid-90’s out of this brash, singular character, at least if you ask me. The confusion of Hedwig with your average drag queen — the type who can throw off her wig and dress — feels anachronistic, despite the fact that the dramatic choice is new for the production. In a flashback, Hedwig confronts her would-be teenage lover and protege Tommy Gnosis afters he’s made acutely aware he's only ever embraced her from behind, having avoided awkward questions about gender. “Why can’t you love the front of me?” Hedwig demands, a question that never quite gets an answer, though an off-stage voice of Tommy’s at least confirms, by the show’s end, that he did love Hedwig, and still thanks her for his career. And, in their unconventional way, Hedwig and Yitzhak have found love, too, and by the show’s La Cage Aux Folles-influenced finale, we are meant to understand they’ve found happiness with each other, too.
Fans of the Hedwig movie (starring Mitchell) and the soundtrack are going to be more than impressed and delighted with the production quality here, the fantastic, dystopian set design by Julian Crouch, and the direction by Michael Mayer. And, like I said, fans of Darren Criss will undoubtedly revel in the opportunity not only to hear and see their idol sweat through, and expertly belt out, the show’s anthemic numbers in the flesh — not to mention the opportunity to see a lot of that flesh, and just how good his legs look in a mini-skirt.
But the show itself still has a sort of unformed, awkward middle to it with some desultory moments, and I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t question whether this is really the right show to add to the canon when it comes to this moment in LGBT history. But, just like La Cage Aux Folles and the movie remake The Birdcage feel a bit like charming relics now in this era of legal gay marriage, so too will Hedwig in a very short time, if it doesn’t already.
Hedwig and the Angry Inch runs through October 30 at SHN Golden Gate Theatre, 1 Taylor Street. Find tickets here.