Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte celebrated age and agelessness Wednesday night with the return of “Hedwig and the Angry Inch.”
The play, resurrected for a fourth go-round after an audience poll, put ATC on many Charlotteans’ radar screens, most notably in 2003 and 2007. The company marks its 25th season this year, and N.C. Theatre Conference board president Michelle Long presented an award for ongoing excellence before the show.
Then seemingly ageless Billy Ensley tore the house up in the role he first embodied for ATC 11 years ago. I didn’t see that performance (or Scott Ripley’s reprise in 2007, directed by Ensley), but it couldn’t have had more visceral excitement or revealed more hard-won emotion.
John Cameron Mitchell wrote the 1998 off-Broadway play and took the lead there and in the excellent 2001 film. Stephen Trask wrote the songs, which range from raw punk angst to outpourings of affection. (“The Origin of Love” somehow manages to be both.)
Hedwig explains her life from the stage of a small, dingy club, while former duet partner Tommy Gnosis plays a packed stadium nearby. We learn about her change from Hansel to Hedwig, undertaken to marry an American G.I. and escape an empty life in East Germany, and the botched sex-change operation that left her neither man nor woman. (“Angry Inch” is both the name of her band and a description of the protuberance that humiliates her.)
Band members seldom speak. Yitzhak (Raquel Novo), a surly drag queen who sings backup, gets a few lines and one solo. The rest of the show falls to Hedwig, who veers from cynicism to self-pity to bitterness to wrath.
The songs, played by a remarkably tight quintet under musical director Ryan Stamey, both advance the narrative and keep us inside Hedwig’s head. I especially enjoyed sizzling guitar licks by Matt Carlson and Jeremy De Carlos and a Jerry Lee Lewis-style interlude from Stamey; Chip Decker not only directs but provides satisfying sound design.
The first act feels like a real punk concert from the late ’70s or early ’80s, fast and relentless; the second act becomes more of a cabaret show, as if melancholy Hedwig were a transgender Ute Lemper. The forceful element finally asserts itself again in “Midnight Radio,” which pays homage to unquenchable divas of every stripe.
When I saw Mitchell’s film, it seemed to demand that we respect Hedwig, however alien she might appear. This time, I had a different take: Hedwig fights for our acceptance but struggles just as hard to accept herself.
Ensley, concealed under glittering makeup designed by Clay Smith and a blond wig that seems ready to take flight, sings with more power and acts with more pathos than I’ve ever seen from him. His stamina made my eyes pop – surely he’s 50 by now? – and his near-collapse at the end of the show was so realistic I wondered whether he or Hedwig was worn out. Apparently, age cannot wither nor custom stale his capacity to dig into this role.
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