It"s dark in the basement club, and every table is crowded with patrons waiting to see a performance by the obscure German cabaret songstress Hedwig, and her band, the Angry Inch. The band walks on stage wordlessly, their faces composed in stoic expressions that contrast with their outlandish glam/grunge attire.
Blaine Hogan sings in Hedwig and The Angry Inch at The Phoenix Theatre.
Suddenly, the club falls silent as a tall woman with a monumental crown of blonde hair, wearing a glittering red, blue and silver cloak, snakes through the tables to the front of the club. This, of course, is Hedwig. What, or who, she is remains to be seen. As Hedwig casts aside her cloak and the band tears into the night"s first song, "Tear Me Down," it becomes apparent that Hedwig, from her snarling, sparkling ruby red lips, to her slim hips, to the toes of her high-heeled black boots is no ordinary woman. "I"m the new Berlin Wall - try and tear me down," she shouts defiantly, strutting back and forth across the small stage. "Ladies and gentleman," she elaborates, "Hedwig is like that wall, standing before you in the divide between east and west, slavery and freedom, man and woman, top and bottom." Over the course of the next 90 minutes, Hedwig elaborates on this metaphor as her life story unfolds in a set-list of autobiographical rock songs and monologues that hold the audience rapt under her spell. Hedwig explains that she and her band, "those ambassadors of Eastern Bloc rock" are touring through Indianapolis hot on the heels of Hedwig"s ex-lover and band mate Tommy Gnosis, who is playing a sold-out show at a nearby stadium - with songs that he stole from Hedwig, no less. His voice echoes into the club, and Hedwig periodically opens a fire door to hurl accusations at him. "I laugh because I will cry if I don"t," she shrugs, and perches on the stage to sing "Origin of Love," a beautiful ballad recounting a bedtime story that her mother told her when she was a little boy named Hansel, growing up in 1950s Berlin. Once upon a time, according to Hedwig"s mother, four-legged, 2-faced creatures roamed the earth, and they had no need for love because they were already complete. But then the god Zeus, fearing the power of these autonomous creatures, cut them in half with his mighty lightening bolts, and the separated creatures were consigned to an eternal search for the love that will complete them again. Since hearing the story, Hedwig has spent her life on a quest to find her other half. In "Sugar Daddy," a robust country tune delivered in the style of Dolly Parton, Hedwig relives her years as a teenager in impoverished East Berlin, listening to American rock music, and dreaming of a way to escape over the Wall to freedom. He gets his chance when he meets Luther, an American G.I. who becomes Hansel"s lover and benefactor. He promises to marry Hansel and take him to the U.S., but warns that he will have to "leave something behind." The story continues with "Angry Inch," and the stage is suffused with red light as Hedwig recounts the botched sex change operation that left her with an "angry inch," neither woman nor man. Luther soon abandons his bride in a trailer park in a "Wicked Little Town." It is here that she meets Tommy Speck, a general"s son, and remakes the dorky, Jesus-freak teen into her hunky back-up singer, christening him Tommy "Gnosis," meaning "knowledge." When Tommy discovers that Hedwig is transsexual, he abandons her, and soon scores a major label contract with the songs she wrote. During most of her set, Hedwig maintains an ironic detachment as carefully styled as the Farah Fawcett wings of her wig. But during "Exquisite Corpse," she finally loses control, pacing the stage, ripping the wig from her head, and tearing off her clothes as the music descends into a hysterical frenzy. When Hedwig emerges, she is transformed, as is her second husband, keyboard player and back-up singer Yitzhak, who, the audience might have noticed, has an awfully high voice for a man. Together, they sing "Midnight Radio," a song celebrating singers like "Patti, and Tina, and Yoko, Aretha, and Nico, and me" and "all the strange rock and rollersÖall the misfits and losers." It"s a moment of catharsis and reconciliation, and part of what makes Hedwig and the Angry Inch so much more than a rock opera about a transsexual German rock star. Under the makeup When, after the standing ovation, the makeup and wigs and hair dye come off, Hedwig turns back into Butler University senior Blaine Hogan, and the Angry Inch returns to being three-fourths of The Common (guitarist Jimmy Sizemore, bassist Steve Hayes, and drummer Ryan Roberts), joined by actor/singer/keyboard player Jessica Benge as Yitzhak, and replacement guitarist Royston Lloyd from the Shivers. In an almost unheard of collaboration between the local theater and indie rock scenes, they all helped to bring Hedwig and the Angry Inch to the stage of the Phoenix Theatre for its Indiana premiere, which may well be both the best play and one of the best rock shows of the year. The character of Hedwig was born in New York in 1994 as the result of a creative union between writer/actor John Cameron Mitchell and musician Stephen Trask. After enjoying off-Broadway success, Hedwig and the Angry Inch became an art film sleeper hit in 2001, winning the audience award at Sundance, and spawning legions of fans, known as "Hedheads," who rival Rocky Horror Picture Show enthusiasts in their obsession with all things Hedwig. Surprisingly, Hedwig was embraced not only on the east and west coasts, but also in the Midwest-especially by people who felt like outsiders in their own small towns, because of the music they liked, the ideas they had, or their sexual orientations. For Blaine Hogan, it was simply the best piece of theater he"d seen in some time. "I just remember leaving the theater in awe," he recalls, after attending a production of Hedwig in Chicago. "It had been a long time since I had seen something that was so powerful. There was something so visceral, and real, and honest about it." He knew right away that he wanted to play Hedwig, but being a heterosexual man, wasn"t sure he could pull off the role. Regardless, he wanted to bring the play to Indianapolis, as did Phoenix Theatre co-directors Brian Fonseca and Tony McDonald. After Hogan agreed to take the role of Hedwig, he met with some local transgendered people to ask their advice on how to portray Hedwig as someone other than a caricatured drag queen. Hogan soon realized that the play, "wasn"t about flaunting [Hedwig"s] transgenderedness - it was just about this real person in a search for love, for her other half." Though he spends about two hours a night getting into his make-up and costume, Hogan says "the thing about Hedwig, aside from the story of the transsexual rock star that has a botched sex change operation, is the message about the universality of love. When there"s a message that"s that strong, it doesn"t necessarily matter what package it comes in, just as long as it gets there." Co-director Brian Fonseca agrees. He wasn"t certain how well the play would go over in a city as conservative as Indianapolis, but was determined to do Hedwig anyway, because of the play"s themes: "love, acceptance, reclamation - all of those things we find incredibly positive and life-affirming. How do you disagree with someone searching for completion and wholeness?" The Phoenix"s gamble (which included ripping out all the theater"s seats to create a club atmosphere) has so far been rewarded with a weekend of sold-out performances, and audiences ranging in age from teenage punks to open-minded senior citizens - and they all find something to love about Hedwig. The Common"s drummer Ryan Roberts has another theory: People like Hedwig because it rocks. He cites the musical influences in the vibrant score as coming from such diverse sources as David Bowie, the New York Dolls, Queen, Nirvana, 1970s punk, Roxy Music, vaudeville stage shows, and country music. "It pulls from a lot of different eras," says Roberts. "There"s a lot there [musically], which adds to the play"s appeal." Initially, The Common thought they might face some ridicule from their peers for performing in costume, in an explicitly queer rock musical, but Roberts says The Common is pleased that "everyone has been really supportive. People in bands I never would have thought would be interested in this kind of thing have seen the movie, and are more envious than anything." Despite the incendiary rock score and Hogan"s tour-de-force performance, a few audience members did walk out midway through the show"s opening night, but it doesn"t bother Hedwig"s cast or crew. Says Fonseca, "If you come with an open mind, that"s all we ask. Hedwig and the Angry Inch runs through Dec. 1, on Thursdays at 7:30, Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00, and Sundays at 2:00. The Phoenix Theatre is located at 749 N. Park Avenue. Call 635-7529 for tickets, which are half price for people 24 and under.