‘Hedwig’ heralds Cardinal’s transformation

By Wendy Carson

The on- and Off-Broadway hit musical “Hedwig and The Angry Inch” is a unique experience, even more so now as the final production of Cardinal Stage in Bloomington.

As you enter the theater, you notice that it is in the middle of renovations. Your ushers and the crew are all wearing protective vests and hard hats. The entire place is a miasma of construction, complete with caution tape and even a port-a-potty on stage. However, this sets a perfect scene for the spectacle you are about to behold.

For those of you unfamiliar with the story, Hedwig is a visionary singer who escaped East Germany by way of marriage to a G.I. But her dark reality ruins the fairy tale, as she endured a botched sex-change operation, becoming essentially genderless. Rather than sink into despair, she recreates herself into a rock goddess while also creating a rock god, Tommy Gnosis. As with every other man in her life, he leaves her; still she rages on, continuing to tell her story no matter what.

The most surprising part of this production is that James Rose is one of the few trans, genderfluid, or non-binary performers to play the title role. While one may consider this a bit of stunt-casting, Rose quickly shows the talent and passion that makes Hedwig resonate with any audience.

While I have seen and enjoyed other stagings of this show, Rose is the first performer I’ve seen who shows the true duality of Hedwig and Tommy Gnosis. As developed by originator John Cameron Mitchell (with songs by Stephen Trask), the two are distinct persons but portrayed by the same actor. In the Cardinal production, directed by queer performer John Jarboe, the revelation of Gnosis is the best presented I’ve ever seen. Rose makes Hedwig’s “other half” their own person, with his own distinct reckoning.

Paige Scott as Yitzhak (Hedwig’s “husband” from the former Yugoslavia) brings the anger requisite to the character but subtly shows us the deep love felt for Hedwig. With the character being relegated to the background for much of the story, her transformation during the finale is so much more joyous to behold.

Hedwig’s backup band, The Angry Inch, are comprised of Dan Kazemi on keyboard, Ben Jackson on guitar, Galen Morris on bass, and Bryce Greene on drums. They are all an integral part of the show, not just as accompanists, but also bringing out the true rock-and-roll performances demanded of them. They all bring such a sense of joy to the musical, keeping the story from becoming unbearably morose. They also work the crowd prior to the show – let them know if you’ve spotted “Phyllis” in the audience.

I did particularly love Christopher Simanton & Johna Sewell’s costume and wig designs. They made brilliant use of ordinary objects found on or near a construction site and transformed them into stunning works of art. I do recommend taking a moment or two after the show ends to fully take in their amazing array of “wigs” throughout the space, created by props master Aubrey Krueger.*

Since this is Cardinal’s final production before merging with Bloomington Playwrights Project and Pigasus Institute to form Constellation Stage & Screen, the renovation and rebuilding theme of both the show and its design are quite appropriate. So, say goodbye to the old and welcome the new with this amazing update of what is quickly becoming a timeless classic.

Performances run through June 26 at Waldron Auditorium, 122 S. Walnut St., Bloomington, and tickets are pay-what-you-can. Details at cardinalstage.org.

*This last credit was added after initial posting, when it was pointed out Simanton and Sewell mainly made the wigs (and wig-like objects) for people’s heads. Krueger’s designs are static, displayed around the stage set.

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