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Publication: Richmond Times-Dispatch
Byline: Roy Proctor; Contact Roy Proctor at (804) 649-6733 or
Date: 10-27-2001
Edition: City
Section: Art & Travel

And now, ladies and gentlemen, for something completely different . . .

Check out "Hedwig and the Angry Inch," the off-Broadway rockfest now in its first Richmond production at the Firehouse Theatre under the Firehouse Theatre Project banner.

But be warned.

"Hedwig" is bizarre.

The title refers both to the East German transsexual rock singer - Hansel as a man, then Hedwig as a woman - at the heart of this essentially one-man musical and to the short appendage that remained when Hansel-turned-Hedwig's sex-change operation went awry.

The Angry Inch is also the name of the black-garbed rock band that shares the stage with Hedwig (New York actor Kirk Lawrence in his Richmond debut) and her second husband, Yitzhak (a bearded and virtually unrecognizable Jill Bari Steinberg), who sings on occasion but is mostly the mousy silent type.

"Hedwig" is shot through with theatricality, which achieves a throbbing intensity in the final half-hour.

In an adaptation of the New York script by Richmond-turned-New York director Daniel Ruth, Richmond's "Hedwig" is set in the Firehouse Theatre, where the title character is springing her confessional rock gig on Richmonders for the first time.

Or is this really his confessional rock gig?

Despite the female attire - topped by a Farrah Fawcett wig - that Hedwig wears, does that botched operation mean that she is still somehow a he?

Whatever the case - let's call Hedwig her - this show revels in gender confusion as Hedwig traces her traumas from East Berlin (before the Wall came down) to marriage to an American GI to life in a Kansas trailer park to star-making on behalf of an unworthy rocker she names Tommy Gnosis.

Hedwig's struggle to "find my other half" and establish her sexual and cultural identity is related both in narratives directed at the audience and in songs written in a wide range of rock styles by composer-lyricist Stephen Trask and embedded in a text by John Cameron Mitchell, who created Hedwig off-Broadway.

Above all, "Hedwig" is loud.

Thunderously so in its musical segments.

The Firehouse is wise to offer free earplugs to all patrons, but those earplugs pose a dilemma all their own.

Why attend a rock musical if you won't let yourself hear it?

Hedwig's spoken banter is always intelligible, but the songs, which convey a lot of this show's plot and thematic content, are often so loud that the lyrics get lost in the din.

Nonetheless, Lawrence proves considerably more adept as a singer than as an actor.

He looks the part, but fails to endow his drag persona with the variety of surprise that brings a drag performance to vibrant life. He also has difficulty connecting intimately with the audience as he spins his tales of desperation and survival.

The real stars of "Hedwig," finally, are Ruth and musical director Bryan Harris, who combine a crescendoing musical intensity with spectacular lighting (by David A. McLain), costuming (by Ruth) and smoke effects to turn the final 20 minutes into a major spellbinder even if the audience doesn't comprehend fully what the spell is about.

"Hedwig," finally, recommends itself more to the young, who feel at home in booming discos, than to theatergoers whose ears are more than 40 years old.


THROUGH: Nov. 11 at the Firehouse Theatre, 1609 W. Broad St.

TICKETS: $15 ($10 price for side section on day of performance)

CALL: (804) 355-2001

Illustrations/Photos: PHOTO