‘Hedwig and the Angry Inch’ sees Willow Creek Theatre Company bask in genderfuckery

Hedwig and the Angry Inch

Through July 31, Willow Creek Theatre, Iowa City, $26

Aaron Longoria as Hedwig in Willow Creek Theatre’s production of ‘Hedwig and the Angry Inch.’ — courtesy of the theater

I write this review of Willow Creek Theatre Company’s production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch (John Cameron Mitchell, text; Stephen Trask, music and lyrics) with the music of Tomato Boy playing in the background on Bandcamp. There’s not much available; a few singles, a collection of three titled birthday demos. The earliest was added in March of 2020. Several of them, especially the newest, “no longer there,” give me hope as someone who just a couple of days ago was bemoaning the fact that Kimya Dawson hasn’t released anything new since the early 2010s.

Tomato Boy is the musical project of Dawson’s fellow enby Aaron Longoria, who plays the lead in Willow Creek’s Hedwig. Their light folksy flow on these tunes is lulling, but it gives no hint of the possibilities revealed in their performance as the captivating, earth-bound star.

For the unfamiliar, Hedwig and the Angry Inch is a cabaret-style musical centered on a German expat who escaped East Berlin in her early 20s only for the wall to fall a year later. The “angry inch,” in addition to being the name of Hedwig’s backup band, refers to the “one-inch mound of flesh” remaining from an imperfect surgery to remove her penis, so that she could make it through the physical checks required to allow her to marry the American G.I. who promised to whisk her away to safety.

Hedwig shares with the audience how she became stranded in the U.S., divorced and desperate, but clinging to the one thing that had kept her sane as a child: music. The story is well-crafted and the music is outstanding. If you’ve never seen it produced, now is the time — it’s so much more riveting in person than in the (also wonderful) 2001 film version. The set design (by Willow Creek founder Luke Brooks) is a fantastic use of the theater’s space, and the mannequins make for several deeply affecting moments.

But now is the time for other reasons, as well. Honestly, I don’t know why every market in the country isn’t running productions of Hedwig at this time in our history. Bodily autonomy and trans rights specifically are at such risk in the U.S. that it’s all too easy to imagine a near-future where bottom surgery for trans women looks more like the desperate, rushed, imperfect experience that Hedwig had than the modern medical procedure currently accessible.

There is also the powerful effect of all the deliberate genderfuckery in the show. Yitzhak, Hedwig’s present-day husband and backup singer, is typically played by a woman — Kjerstin Miller in this production. And Hedwig provides the off-stage voice for and performs a song as her rockstar ex-boyfriend, Tommy Gnosis.

Hedwig herself, though, in most notable productions of this show, has been played by a cisgender man (a couple of times by a cis woman). Only rarely has the role been played by a nonbinary person (although creator Mitchell, who also originated the role, came out as nonbinary earlier this year). There is, in fact, a seeming resistance to casting Hedwig from within the trans community (or at least to requiring that the role have a trans performer).

Because Hedwig’s surgery is a means of escape from a brutal situation, rather than a fully free choice, it can be argued, as Mitchell does, that hers is explicitly not a (binary) trans story. But she absolutely chooses to continue living as a woman, and her experiences and emotions echo those many trans women contend with.

In a current atmosphere where many people are trying to insist that gender is something intrinsic and immutable, it’s valuable to drive this conversation in every community. But Hedwig is about sex as well as gender, and that equally charged conversation is not dealt with as deftly in the text. The tension between sex and gender, and the way in which Hedwig’s existence in a binary trans space is used by Mitchell as a cipher to better understand nonbinary experience, creates controversy and mistrust around this play within the trans community. Especially given the current threats to medical transition, it would have been powerful to pair this production with community talkbacks. That lack feels like a missed opportunity.

Kjerstin Miller (L) as Yitzhak and Aaron Longoria as Hedwig in Willow Creek Theatre’s production of ‘Hedwig and the Angry Inch.’ — courtesy of the theater

I can say that, as an enby myself (one who believes that category does fall under the “trans umbrella”), there was something deeply moving about seeing Longoria in this role. Hearing a nonbinary person speak the line, “a man or a woman — or a freak” was jarring in all the best ways. And their rapport with Miller, especially when singing together, presented an achingly familiar relationship dynamic.

Following a somewhat shaky opening that had me thumbing through the program to verify that yes, in fact, there was no choreographer credited, Longoria really hits their stride on the tune “Wig in a Box.” At times, early in the show, you could almost see them searching out willing audience members with which to engage — but the audience was slow to warm up. “Wig in a Box” is a very insular tune, which sees Hedwig weaving a fantasy around herself rather than focusing outward, and it afforded Longoria a chance to really sink into character and confidence.

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There is also no vocal coach credited in the program, which was unfortunate in a show with so much accent work. Miller managed reasonably well, and Longoria did an excellent job with the voice-switching needed for bringing other characters into the storytelling. But Longoria kept dropping the primary Hedwig accent for short periods. Or rather, they often had trouble picking it back up after a song.

Although there is some interaction with Yitzhak and with the band, this is a show that Hedwig needs to carry — and Longoria does manage it. It’s impossible not to fall a little bit in love with their Hedwig. It’s intoxicating to watch Longoria strip away Hedwig’s bravado and turn her into someone who finally believes she is worthy of being loved (something so integral to the trans experience as well). Director Will Asmus is to be applauded for drawing such a performance out of someone who, Longoria’s bio says, is making their acting debut.

Miller also seemed to take a little bit to settle in as Yitzhak. But when she did, especially in her smaller moments, great things happened. She is perhaps too subtle for the stage (I suspect she was doing more that just didn’t read from where I was sitting), but she says much in each gesture and look. And her voice is simply lovely.

The band gathered for this production — Maxwell LeaVesseur on guitar, Nate Kofron on bass, Dustin Hills on drums and music director Rishi Wagle on keys — was unfamiliar at first glance. There’s what seems like a standard set of fantastic musicians who frequently accompany musicals in this area, but, like the actors, these were fresh-to-me faces. Some were musicians who just hadn’t done theater before. It’s a wonderful testament to Willow Creek (which is just completing its second full season, and which celebrated its 100th show at Saturday night’s performance) that they are breaking so much new talent in a region filled with it already. Both on stage and in the audience, I felt like I was experiencing the future of theater in this area, and that future is bright.

Hedwig and the Angry Inch runs through Sunday, July 31. In adherence to Willow Creek’s mission to uplift actors, the cast receives a cut of the $26 ticket price. Take time to catch one of the remaining performances. It is at times hard to watch, but it’s worth it.