The powerful play Hedwig and the Angry Inch, which combines a love story with varied and marvelous music, has maintained its beauty and intensity since it debuted off-Broadway in 1998. Seattle’s Moore Theatre will have a two-week run of the work beginning Tuesday, January 15th. Starting as Hansel, Hedwig’s forced into a gender reassignment operation when he wants to move from East Berlin to the States with his G.I. boyfriend. In order for Hansel to emigrate from East Berlin during the late Cold War, spouses in a marriage must be opposite sexes. The operation results in a genital neither/nor area, leaving Hedwig with a hole that heals up as an inch of skin instead of a vagina – as Hedwig puts it in the song, “The Angry Inch,” a gash between my legs becomes an angry inch.
From there Hansel becomes a singer, renaming herself Hedwig, and there are many levels to the play about Hedwig’s search for love and acceptance. I was fortunate to talk with the director of the Seattle Theatre Group/Balagan Theatre production, Ian Bell. Bell, who has directed works at Seattle theaters such as Re-Bar and ACT, is at the helm of the first collaboration between STG and Balagan. After I interviewed the brilliant Bell I saw the first dress rehearsal of the Hedwig production, and audiences are really in for a special treat. Lead actor Jerick Hoffer is a fearless Hedwig. Hoffer makes this character real. There’s a strong bond displayed in the cast, and the performance by Erin Stewart as Yitzhak is likewise sensitive. The music and vocals absolutely emote the fury of Hedwig’s journey.
What drew you to Hedwig and the Angry Inch?
Ian Bell: I have always absolutely loved the stage play of this since the first time they did it, what, thirteen years ago here in Seattle? They did it at the Re-Bar, which is where I’ve been for the last fifteen years or so. Most of the producing and directing I’ve done has been at the Re-Bar. I kind of already liked that aesthetic and appreciated this kind of theater. Hedwig is the perfect celebration of a kind of theater that’s an event. It’s event theater. It’s not something to passively watch in a voyeuristic manner. One of the things I like about this show is that – it’s technically classified as a musical – but it’s sort of a hybrid. At times it’s a rock gig, at times it’s a play, at times it’s about epiphany. In itself it’s sort of a cross-dresser of the theater world – a theater tranny, as I think I wrote in my director notes. A lot of theater that I do – and this isn’t necessarily by design – with the Brown Derby series and the plays I’ve directed at Re-Bar, and the ongoing series I’ve been doing at ACT Theater (show) I’m more drawn to theater that embraces what makes theater unique. I guess it’s cause I was a geeky kid in high school. I always thought the very thing that makes people outcasts is the thing that makes them really cool. A lot of the theater I do embraces this idea that we’re all in the same room together, that this is happening right here, in this room, in this place. Rock and roll and comedy elicit a visceral response from the audience, it pulls you through the fourth wall. People onstage make no bones about the fact that you’re sitting in the dark watching them. They know that. And they know you know. A lot of theater really relies on that fourth wall to divide the performers from the audience, and the world onstage will never meet the world and the audience. And that’s great for a lot of theater. As an actor I love doing plays like that. As a director I’ve really enjoyed working on stuff that breaks down that wall. It either pulls the audience through that wall, or crosses from the stage into the audience. The audience has some stakes. They realize that they’re part of the performance. I’m not going to pull anyone on stage, and we’re not going to take suggestions from the audience, but everybody’s here. Everybody’s present. We’re all taking time out of our lives to spend two hours here, so each performance is going to be completely individual and is going to celebrate the fact that this is live theater. There’s something about the stage play that really embraces all the things that make live theater truly unique. It celebrates everything that makes live theater different from other performing arts. The rock is infectious. The comedy is infectious. The recklessness of Hedwig. In her banter there’s that sort of visceral experience of rock and roll. And I think there’s something about the storyline about love that’s really personal. The play’s about someone looking for their other half, the half that was taken away from them – their better half. It strikes a personal chord in people. It leads you through that fourth wall.
What would you say is the most moving thing about the character Hedwig?
Ian Bell: Hedwig’s truly genuine search for her better half. Be that someone else she could love, or be it within her. To me that is the spine of the play, that Hedwig is looking for that other part of herself that was taken away from her. (It’s) symbolized by her being on one side of the wall, and wanting to get over the wall, and that she had to give something up to get over the wall. She’s always coming up short. Sacrifice to get something you want is a wonderful thing. You think you’re getting something you want, but you discover you’ve also had to make a sacrifice to get it. “The Origin of Love,” a key song, is based on Plato’s Symposium. The lyrics are directly taken from the Symposium. I believe it’s Aristophanes. This theme is nothing new. It’s a classic theme, but it takes a new and innovative approach at looking at it.
What would be the significance of doing Hedwig in Seattle?
Ian Bell: The production they did thirteen years ago, at Re-Bar, was one of the first productions outside Broadway that was done. They did it again in 2004, I think. There’s been something like ten productions of it. Seattle’s cold and people are isolated. Seattle’s a big rock and roll town. David Russell, the music director and I agreed early on that this is not a musical – this is a rock gig. Seattle’s its own unique anomaly of moodiness and rock and roll. I think Hedwig is a beautiful embodiment of moodiness and rock and roll. The emotional volatility of Hedwig mixed with rock and roll makes Seattle able to access it.
Is it difficult to direct a play that is largely a monologue?
Ian Bell: The hard thing about a monologue is that it’s about things that aren’t happening on stage. It’s someone telling about things that have happened. One of the things I’ve paid close attention to is the ways in which that’s not the case (in Hedwig). Reading the script, it looks as though Hedwig is a monologue. But at closer look there’s Yitzhak and in our production there’s five other musicians sharing the stage the entire time. It’s more like a play than anybody thinks at the beginning. Her emotional life is very much in the present. These things aren’t happening retrospectively. We’re seeing her go through these things on stage – in the moment. There’s a lot more interaction than first meets the eye. I had a great time exploring that with the cast and the band, finding the depth and dimension in what at first glance looks like a one-person show, but is actually more of a play.
Even though the songs were written with a view to be in a “musical,” has any song been particularly tough to do?
Ian Bell: The process has been about discovery. I love the script so much. There are so many flavors and hues and directions. The show transforms into so many styles of performance. It’s really exciting to work on. And Jerick and Erin are amazing. They work wonderfully together. It really is an ensemble piece. You think of David Bowie as David Bowie, but it’s a band. It’s exactly the same thing with Hedwig. (Even though) Hedwig has 98% of all the lines, it still has this feel of an ensemble piece.
Do you have a favorite Hedwig song?
Ian Bell: I’ve always had a soft spot for “The Origin of Love.” There’s something exhilarating about “Midnight Radio.” “Exquisite Corpse” and “The Angry Inch” is more like the music I listen to more regularly. I’m a huge glam fan.
How did you go about creating Hedwig’s look?
Ian Bell: There’s a certain iconography to the character. The wig, and how it’s written about and spoken about – you can’t fight it. K.D. Schill, the costumer and Jerick crafted the look together. That’s something a lot of performers don’t bring with them. He has a wonderful visual aesthetic about the characters he plays. Not only is he an amazing singer and a formidable actor, he has this drag experience. (It’s) a Hedwig that pays homage to the tradition of Hedwig, but allows it to be Jerick’s Hedwig. The design crew is fantastic.
~interview & photos by Dagmar
For show dates, times and tickets head over to STG’s show page.