On September 22, Hart House Theatre kicked off its new season with a bang, opening with an amazing production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Its themes of gender and sexual identity are very relevant today.
The show’s premise is especially creative: rock star Hedwig Robinson, played by James King, and her band, The Angry Inch, played by Giustin MacLean, Iain Leslie, Erik Larson, and Robert Purcell, are on tour, and Hart House Theatre is one stop along the way. The audience is integrated into the show, encouraged to sing along and raise their hands.
The musical was also customized for the setting of both Hart House and Toronto. Jokes were made about the theatre’s subterranean setting and the lobby’s ‘funeral home’ quality. This blend of fiction and reality made the story much more engaging, funny, and personal for the audience.
Hedwig’s husband and back-up singer Yitzhak, played by Lauren Mayer, opened the show by reading the theatre rules, her skillful acting helping her draw laughter just by clearing her throat. With only six cast members, four of whom were non-speaking band members, the show’s success rested largely on Mayer and King’s shoulders — and both delivered spectacular performances.
From Mayer’s comical opening to belting out bars of Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You” to soloing “The Long Grift,” her powerful voice — in contrast with her quiet character — made for an impactful presence onstage. King’s performance was phenomenal. Even dealing with minor technical malfunctions and stumbling over lines, he recovered flawlessly and did not break character for a second.
Despite the lack of intermission, the audience remained completely immersed — and, in the case of the man sitting in front of me who received a very enthusiastic lap-dance, maybe too much so.
Since the musical is supposed to be Hedwig’s concert, the band and their instruments dominated the set. There was nonetheless room for creativity in the production’s design, especially in Hedwig’s marvellous costumes and wigs and in the sets of certain songs, such as “Origin of Love.” The lighting details were also noteworthy, especially the shadows cast during the penultimate song, “Wicked Little Town (Reprise).”
I found myself blown away by the show’s attention to detail and its stellar performances, which managed to be both hilarious and heartbreaking, sometimes simultaneously. Despite being familiar with the plot, I was on the edge of my seat the entire time. My friend, who came in knowing nothing about the show, felt similarly. The curtain was met with an immediate and much-deserved standing ovation.
This story is sincere and touching, and the sheer emotional display by the actors — when delivered as well as it was in this production — is its strongest feature. Hedwig’s life is so unusual that almost no one can relate on a superficial level, but as King noted in an interview with The Varsity last week, everyone can relate to the feelings of heartbreak and the desire for acceptance that lie at the core of the show.
Hedwig and the Angry Inch is playing at Hart House Theatre until October 7.