‘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.

Cardinal celebrates woman whose love of numbers helped birth today’s tech

By John Lyle Belden

“Good women make for better men.”

This line, spoken by Ada Byron Lovelace in “Ada and the Engine,” the play by Lauren Gunderson presented by Cardinal Stage in Bloomington, is a good summation of the young Countess’s collaboration with fellow mathematician Charles Babbage, credited with inventing the precursor to the modern computer. He envisioned the “engine,” but she saw its true potential.

Ada (played by Megan Massie) was the only legitimate child of scandalous and legendary poet Lord Byron and his wife Anabella (Francesca Sobrer). He abandoned them when she was a baby, giving her little more than a verse she would treasure and a family stain upon her reputation.

Perhaps we can credit the rakish poet in a backhanded way for how Ada’s genius flowered, as her mother had her thoroughly schooled in mathematics in a vain attempt to keep her away from creative endeavors. Her voracious appetite for unlocking the mysteries of maths brings Ada into the orbit of Babbage (Eric Olson), who desperately seeks funds for completing his Difference Engine, which could revolutionize accounting by eliminating human error while handling large numbers in making accurate sums. As he and Ada converse, and later correspond, he realizes the machine could be modified and expanded to do more mathematical functions – the Analytical Engine.

Ada’s tutor, Mary Sommerville (Sobrer), warns Babbage he is too old for then-18 Ada, and especially not to invite the scandal many feared would follow her infamous family name. He insists he is only interested in intellectual stimulation, and she settles for a friendship in letters while accepting the courtship and proposal of Lord Lovelace (Kevin Aoussou).

The marriage does little to lessen the tension between Lovelace and Babbage, but they agree to let Ada write a translation of a paper on the Engine, complete with notes to clarify and explain its principles and capabilities – the Notes would not only be twice the length of the original paper, but also give applications and ideas, including a punch-card driven algorithm since credited as the first computer program, beyond what Babbage had envisioned. She even saw its number-crunching for other uses of numeric symbols, including musical notes.

Now, they just have to find some way to build it.

Gunderson’s focus in this drama, aside from Ada’s contributions to STEM, is on the likely relationship between her and Babbage. Historians might take issue with how close their friendship gets. Still, the story respects that given the pressures of British high society at the time, and the facts on record, any deeper love was unrequited. Yet there are some sparks here, which Massie and Olson masterfully wield in their moments alone. Sobrer’s Anabella, though meaning well, can’t help but play the tyrant in her constant diligence against the “Byron madness” that haunts her and her daughter. Aoussou portrays a man in a tough spot, but coming to understand his Ada does love him, as well as her Engine.

Aoussou also gives a nice cameo as Lord Byron himself.

An interesting stage floor, designed by Reuben Lucas, runs down the center of the theater, with audience seating on either side. Director Kate Galvin has the performances balanced with equal face time in each direction. Each end of the stage represents the two sides of Ada’s life: one the Victorian elegance of a British lady, the other a steampunk-inspired vision of Babbage’s world.

Equal parts inspiring and romantic, “Ada and the Engine” gives us a celebration of the lives of arguably the great-grandparents of the machine you are likely reading this on. Performances run through April 16 at Waldron Auditorium, 122 S. Walnut St., Bloomington. Get information and tickets (“pay what you will” pricing) at cardinalstage.org.

Important ‘Mountaintop’ in the hills of Bloomington

By Wendy Carson

On April 3, 1968, the night before the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s death by assassination, he gave one of his most famous speeches. Known as, “I have been to the Mountaintop”, it encourages people to wonder what would happen to them if they didn’t act in service to others, rather than what would happen to them if they did. 

He speaks of traveling through history and witnessing numerous times of oppressed peoples overcoming their struggles. He reminds us of what we have already been through and how we can continue to overcome poverty and injustice by working together to support one another. 

However, he also speaks about his near-death experience from a knife attack years earlier and how a mere sneeze could have killed him. He references the constant barrage of death threats that he endures each and every day. He acknowledges that he will not always be there to continue the fight for justice and equality. Yet, he assures us that he knows that what he has begun will continue on after he is gone.

This speech, its message, and King’s life are the inspirations for Katori Hall’s play, “The Mountaintop,” presented by Cardinal Stage in Bloomington. 

King (Michael Aaron Pogue) retires to his room at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis to try and get some rest while working on his next speech. He sends a friend to get him some cigarettes to help with this mission. After calling down to the front desk for room service, his coffee is delivered by Camae (AshLee “PsyWrn Simone” Baskin), a beautiful maid on her first night of her new job. She also brings with her the next day’s paper. With the storm raging outside and his reluctance to be alone, the two engage in a spirited discussion of King’s life, the Civil Rights struggle, and the future. 

Hall pulls no punches in portraying King as an honorable but flawed man. Pogue proudly shows us King’s many great achievements while also regretfully acknowledging his indiscretions and moral failings. He also shows us flashes of future inevitability in his panicked reactions to the claps of thunder which, sounding to him like gunshots, rattle King so.

Baskin shows Camae as a mater-of-fact woman who has no time or desire to mince words and always clearly speaks her mind. She manages to keep the character’s expletive-laden rants light yet never denies the meaning and power behind them. She also skillfully keeps Camae sympathetic once we learn the truth of who it is she is actually working for. 

Director Ansley Valentine brings us a story that reminds us not just of the loss of a great leader for change but also that the struggle is not a sprint, but a relay race, and we are all responsible for our part in it. So, take up the baton, and see this show. 

Performances run through March 20 at the Waldron Arts Center, 122 S. Walnut St., Bloomington. Get information and tickets (“pay what you will” pricing) at cardinalstage.org.

Cardinal show anything but ‘Ordinary’

By John Lyle Belden

For these unusual times, Cardinal Stage of Bloomington presents an unusual theatre experience.

Shown online on-demand through Feb. 21, Cardinal’s production of the musical “Ordinary Days” by Adam Gwon relies on technological wizardry to allow four actors to interact while performing their parts in Covid-safe separate locations. Set in New York, circa 2008, we meet four “ordinary” individuals who will have an extraordinary influence on one others’ lives.

Our introduction to them, and this play, initially struck us with an uneasy “what’s this?” feeling. The obviously green-screen NYC backdrop, with our struggling artist-slash-artist’s-assistant-slash-pamphleteer? singing about – what’s this about, again? – but he sure is eager. And wordy. This song could have been written better. And there’s just a single piano in the background. Why does this feel like an audition tape?

If it all seems puzzling to you as well, stick with it. It gets much better.

After Warren (Henry Miller) ends his song with a winning smile, we jump to frustrated grad student Deb (Nina Donville) singing the foundation of her character arc, then to Jason (Julian Diaz-Granados) and Claire (Kayla Marie Eilers) who we discover are moving in together. So that connects two of the characters, but how about the others? A lost-and-found, followed by an odd but artsy rendezvous, kicks off an unlikely relationship between two souls seeking their purpose in art and words. And by the time this hour and a half (no intermission) is over, one pair will affect the other in a subtle but profound way.

Donville delivers as a woman struggling with the expectations of others, and herself, brought to a personal crossroads by impish Warren, in whom Miller channels the “if I can make it there” spirit of the Big Apple, even when his perpetual optimism is challenged. Diaz-Granados’ Jason is a hopeful romantic, wishing to communicate the depth of his feelings for Claire, but instead, at the worst moment, blurts out a proposal. Eilers effectively presents Claire as someone yearning to move forward, but held by a nagging uncertainty. Under the direction of Cardinal Artistic Director Kate Galvin, Gwon’s plot gently weaves together these “ordinary” yet interesting lives with a gust of the wind through the high-rises.

Also tying the scenes and thematic threads together are music director Ray Fellman on piano, and video editor Alyssa V. Gomez of CO-OP Productions, who brilliantly creates character interaction in this strange (for live stage fans) medium. For the vocal harmonies, I’m guessing credit goes in part to sound editor Robert Hornbostel. Rounding out the crew is stage manager Corey Hollinger.

To experience “Ordinary Days,” go to CardinalStage.org, and gather around the screen for a $25 “household” ticket, but only through Sunday.