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Sturm und Drag

Raleigh Ensemble Players stages a wnderbar production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch

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Clearly, Hedwig Schmidt was in a carnivorous mood when her handlers uncaged her during the early show at Legends last Saturday night. At the start, her icy majesty prowled among the rubes in the conservatory, sizing up the menu, her Lugosi mystique enhanced by designer Miyuki Su's radically extended cape, two parts bat wing to one part American flag. One nearly expected AC/DC's "If You Want Blood ..." as the evening's appetizer.

That, however, would have been a different show than Hedwig and the Angry Inch, whose authoritative Raleigh Ensemble Players production rocked out on its opening weekend at that little dance club on Hargett Street.

For those who somehow missed the film and its modest media juggernaut, this punk-rock drag show and rock-concert confessional--with a dash of Plato's Symposium for seasoning--details the life and hard times of its title character, an East German girly-boy whose gruesomely botched sex change operation and similarly arranged marriage to a U.S. Army sergeant earned her a ticket to this side of the Berlin Wall, six whole months before it fell in 1989.

After the marriage falls apart, an abandoned Hedwig, in a Kansas trailer park, returns to her love of the American masters: the music of Toni Tenille, Debby Boone, Iggy Pop and David Bowie. Then fate has her babysit a pimply Jesus freak and Dungeons and Dragons nerd whom she'll nurture into a pop music icon, Tommy Gnosis. That relationship hits the rocks when Gnosis can't deal with his svengali's sexuality, leaving Hedwig with a trunkful of songs about everyone who's done her wrong: daddy, doctor, hubby, mom, the list goes on and on and on.

John Cameron Mitchell's script has never been without its flaws. Yes, those catty one- and two-liners are priceless, as are Hedwig's hyperbolic turns of phrase. At one point she vividly rails at an absent Gnosis, "From this milkless tit you sucked the very business we call show!" But the conflict between Hedwig and Yitzak, her backup singer, was much more fully explicated in the film version than it ever was in the original text, a problem that remains in this production. The dubious premise of Gnosis and Hedwig's breakup, unlikely reunion, limousine accident and her subsequent stalking tour (with backup band in tow) has always seemed contrived. And our distaff heroine veers into the maudlin on more than one occasion.

Stephen Trask's songs are the strongest element, and it's a good thing given the band on hand for this production. Bassist John Custer, in a backward baseball cap, recalled a strung-out Mick Karn, while Neal Chapman's glasses and shaved Mohawk looked imported straight from Prague. Musically, they and colleagues Thomas Kobrick and Francis Dyer gave the show authority.

REP artistic director C. Glen Matthews convinced in the title role. His range ably explored the philosophical stage patter of this "internationally ignored song stylist," nailed the screamers at midshow, and sold the moment his affections turned, thankfully, at the last. The bifurcated conversations between son, mom and first husband are a walk in the park for this actor, and the sculpted silence of the moment he calls for Hedwig's agent was truly devastating.

He don't sing half bad, either. An affecting turn on the Platonic "The Origin of Love" tugged at heartstrings subsequently ripped during "Angry Inch," the telling number that defined a show perhaps too hot for its audience to handle. While the "Hedheads," the apparently nonfictional migrant tribe that follows this show around, screamed the lyrics right back at Matthews with gratifyingly reciprocal abandon, the locals immediately turned to particle board. Apparently it had been a while since some had been to a rock show. Or a gay bar. Or a punk Walpurgisnacht.

As Yitzak, Hedwig's foil, Deb Royal's stoic performance ultimately melted into something more gratifying. But word to the front row: Audience participation is not an option in this show. If someone's screaming in your face at point blank range, go ahead, it's actually proper etiquette to scream right back. Director Heather Willcox has crafted the concert and show with flair, but the sound mix, which muddied crucial lyrics through the night, needs a check. And at least half of the chairs need to go. In this of all shows, the dance floor should be open. EndBlock

Contact Byron Woods at byron@indyweek.com.

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