Theater Review: HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH (Shotgun Players in Berkeley)

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by Chuck Louden on November 9, 2023

in Theater-San Francisco / Bay Area

East Berlin expat Hedwig was forced to leave a rather important bit of himself—later herself—behind the Wall in order to pass physical exams and immigrate to America with the G.I. of her dreams. Move ahead one year: impoverished, divorced and the casualty of a distortedly bungled gender removal procedure, creator John Cameron Mitchell’s counterculture hero(ine) devotes her nights to performing at a dump while her substantially more successful musical apprentice (and unrequited love), Tommy Gnosis, plays a packed stadium nearby.

Pangaea Colter as Hedwig

Berkeley’s Shotgun Players brings us a rockin’ new version of Mitchell and Stephen Trask‘s cult rock musical, Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Appropriately updated to a Berkeley dive bar, the Bay Area Black Dyke Rock Band, Skip The Needle, is brought on to give the show an authentic glam-rock vibe to Hedwig’s band “The Angry Inch.” Kofy Brown on drums, Katie Cash & Shelley Doty on guitar, and Vicki Randle on bass most definitely bring on the funk, creating that live concert feel (Music Supervisor Daniel Alley, Sound Design by Jules Indelicato with the assistance of Michael Kelly).

Shelley Doty and Pangaea Colter

Originally a mostly all-male cast, this version is all female, with performance artist Pangea Colter in the title role and Elizabeth Curtis as Yitzhak, Hedwig’s long-suffering assistant and unrequited love interest. Whether you are a long time fan (and there were plenty on opening night November 4) or a “Hedwig Virgin,” you will drool over director Richard Mosqueda‘s adaptation of a beloved, heartfelt — and amazingly timely and  relevant — show.

Vicki Randle of Skip the Needle

Hedwig was already ahead of its time when it debuted in 1998 at New York City’s underground Bank Theater in 1998, where it was a word-of-mouth sensation. Performed on college campuses, small theaters and Broadway ever since, Hedwig was also adapted as a 2001 film, reaching a more mainstream audience.

Pangaea Colter as Hedwig

One of the most powerful aspects is the intimacy of the show—a small gathering of patrons is the perfect context for this “internationally ignored” song stylist who is playing to (and interacting with) pitifully miniscule crowds. Since we are meant to feel a part of the act, Carlos Aceves has transformed the theater into a dingy dark dive bar with graffiti art all over the walls, with stools and tables in disarray. The stage is front and center, providing an intimate environment to hear the loud music up close. You can practically smell the stale beer.

Pangaea Colter as Hedwig and Elizabeth Curtis as Yitzhak

Our concert in Berkeley is German rock singer Hedwig’s way to tell us her life story — not only so we can get to know her (a self-described “girly boy”) but more importantly, so that she can expose her ex-lover, the megastar pop rocker Tommy Gnosis, as a fraud who stole all of her songs and career opportunities. Soon, the concert begins to morph, at times feeling like a confessional booth, a cabaret, or even a stand-up comedy show.

Elizabeth Curtis as Yitzhak

We are firmly in Hedwig’s grasp, in a world propelled only by her seductive storytelling, gut-punch sense of humor, and addictive tunes. Her journey of identity and self completion includes Yitzhak’s progression. Curtis begins with an understated performance — at first she’s seemingly just a background extra — but no doubt inspired by Hedwig’s confessional, the character becomes more irritated with being regulated to being treated like an indentured servant. She becomes more vocal and alive as her frustration grows. When Curtis raises her voice in song belting out powerful ballads, her transformation leaves you awestruck.

Elizabeth Curtis as Yitzhak

Colter — who is onstage for nearly the entirety of the 90-minute one-act — is amazing. She’s funny, outlandish and angsty. Through her, we’re in awe of Hedwig’s performance, moved by her vulnerability. When Colter comes out with her bleach blond wigs, too-tight ripped denim skirt and jacket with high black boots (costumes by Kip Yanaga, assisted by Melanie Sparks), she immediately takes command. The crowd sang along to Trask’s melancholy ballad “The Origin of Love” and swayed their arms in the air during the climatic finish of “Lift Up Your Hands.”

Pangaea Colter as Hedwig

The success of this revival is due to Mosqueda, who understands the appeal of the show. In the program — which has a modern “Queer” glossary for terms that weren’t in the vernacular in 1998 such as cisgender, gender queer and non-binary — Mosqueda states that “Queer people have not been given permission in the mainstream media to be flawed characters, but have been regulated to comic relief and stereotypes. Hedwig is flawed, messy and problematic at times but she has a huge heart and dreams to find her other half. And THAT is the heart of the story.”

Skip the Needle

photos by Ben Krantz

Hedwig and the Angry Inch
Shotgun Players
Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby Ave. in Berkeley
ends on December 17, 2023 EXTENDED to December 30, 2023
for tickets (Free–$40), visit Shotgun Players

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