Rock artists are obsessed with any number of elements of their craft, but gender ain't one of 'em. Name a single rock tune, for example, that's totally unsuitable for performance by the opposite sex (allowing, of course, for tweaking of the lyrics where need be). If you can't, you owe me a beer and a snowshoe. If you can, you owe me four.
In their dark musical comedy Hedwig and the Angry Inch, playwright John Cameron Mitchell and lyricist-composer Stephen Trask take things a step or two higher. One of those steps, like Hedwig's wholesale lack of work ethic, marks the show for the occasionally uneven piece it is. But it's music that drives this play and by which the curious Hedwig is shaped— like the character, the songs are at once melancholy, introspective and hopeful, with Matthew Tyler's great turn as the central figure anchoring a seriously lively piece. You might find the material a little schizo amid its abrupt shifts between fact and anecdote. As for the spectacle, sit back and enjoy the ride.
Not only does East Berlin native, wannabe rock star and “slip of a girly-boy” Hedwig sing about gender-neutral topics like love and human history; she's the clinical definition of transsexualism following the botched surgery that's left her with the titular “angry inch” down there. The screw-up leads to her abandonment by the man who got her out of Europe only to leave her at a Kansas trailer park, with a wig stand and hair spray for company. She'll be dusted a second time as a former band mate steals her songs and, apparently, her fame. She wins in the end, though. The twist lies in how she does it.
This play's become a cult favorite since its off-Broadway debut in 1998, due in no small part to the nostalgia involved. The glam factor is at work overtime here, as Hedwig wears David Bowie's faux androgyny like a brand name. Director James Vasquez squeezes every drop of aloofness from Tyler's face, and his treatment of Yitzhak, Hedwig's spouse (Katie Alexander), is a joy at play's end. Still, Hedwig probably wouldn't make the cut among the glam elite of 25 years ago. I've never met Bowie or Lou Reed or Iggy Pop, but I'm acquainted with several men who've worked closely with them, and they say Hedwig succumbed to the morass of self-pity and drugs that never touched the others' success, simply because they refused to let it.
But this piece is easily worth seeing amid Sean Murray's brooding set and Eric Lotze's spot-on lighting. And if you've grown accustomed to Cygnet as an east-city flagship theater over the last few years, you may want to see this show on principle. It's the final entry (just as it was the inaugural one in 2003) at the company's Rolando venue. It's an enormous fiscal challenge to run a theater today, let alone two. After Aug. 9, Cygnet will turn its attentions in earnest to its beautiful Theatre in Old Town, where's it's been producing since last year.This review is based on the opening-night performance of June 6. Hedwig and the Angry Inch runs through Aug. 9 at Cygnet Theatre Company's Rolando venue, 6663 El Cajon Blvd. in the College Area.$24. 619-337-1525, www.cygnettheatre.com.Write to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.