Arts & Entertainment
3 min

Can a straight man play Hedwig?

A ‘prairie tough guy’ makes the iconic ‘slip of a girlie-boy’ his own

Ryan Alexander MacDonald plays the transgender glam-rocker in Ghost Light Projects’ production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Credit: Ghost Light Productions

Can a straight boy play Hedwig, the self-described “slip of a girlie-boy” whose gender identity stems from a botched sex-change operation?

After seeing Ryan Alexander MacDonald on opening night at The Cobalt, the short answer is yes.

The Cobalt might not be the first place you think of when considering an evening of theatre. But right now, it should be. The Eastside homo haven is currently playing host to Ghost Light Projects’ gritty production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, John Cameron Mitchell’s 1998 off-Broadway cult sensation about an “internationally ignored” transgender glam-rocker bent on revenging herself on her narcissistic protégé.

“It’s a bit skanky in the daytime,” MacDonald says, crinkling his adorable nose and glancing around The Cobalt at noon on a weekday, where he’s agreed to meet with me. I had the good fortune to don The Wig Iconic 10 years ago, and I want to compare our experiences in the role.

“It’s nostalgic for me,” I confess. “Like an aromatic wormhole.”

On our way to the more interview-conducive Brixton Cafe, MacDonald asks (without a hint of irony), “Where did you do it?”

While I’d like to think this information is part of Vancouver’s queer theatre lore, I can forgive his not knowing. After all, when the Hoarse Raven Theatre production opened in the atmospherically perfect and now sadly defunct Lotus Sound Lounge in 2003, he was a 17-year-old, soccer-playing, straight boy in Winnipeg.

“I grew up surrounded by a prairie-tough-guy mentality,” he says.

So how did he end up in a denim dress and an outrageous wig with his boy bits duct-taped into submission in the queerest musical never written by Stephen Sondheim?

After all, even when he made one of the gayest moves a straight boy from the Canadian Midwest can make — coming to Vancouver to study theatre — he fell shy of the gay mark. In fact, MacDonald was part of arguably the straightest class ever to graduate from Langara’s Studio 58.

“The guys were called Term Testosterone — we were all alpha males,” he says.

It’s hard to imagine that this group could churn out a drag queen. Or, for that matter, an entire class of drag queens and kings. But that was before they met Zee Zee Theatre’s artistic director, Cameron Mackenzie, also known as the Queen of East Van, Isolde N Barron.

“We did a show called What a Drag, directed by Cameron. Definitely, it was a new process for all of us, but we were pretty open as a class,” MacDonald tells me, again without a hint of irony.

“Before we started, I kinda knew what everybody’s drag queen was going to be like — there’s a part of yourself you get to bring out when you’re in drag. I knew who was going to be the uppity bitch and who was going to be in-your-face sexy.”

Which one was he?

“I wanted to confuse boys and be the prettiest girl!”

Ultimately, the question of gender identity might be moot. Does it matter? It’s a potentially heated discussion similar to the one that surrounds colour-blind casting. The role has undoubtedly been played by straight men before. It’s even been played by at least one woman — Ally Sheedy, in New York in 1999.

I asked Randie Parliament, Ghost Light’s founding artistic producer and co-director of Hedwig, what it was about MacDonald that got him the role.

“It was the most remarkable callback I’ve ever seen,” he says. “He owned it.”

“He came from work, on his lunch break. He did his own makeup, put on a terrible wig, and skateboarded over. Exactly what Hedwig would’ve done — completely unapologetic. We knew he would be the one to play with it and make it his own.”

MacDonald has felt an affinity for the role since first seeing the film and downloading the soundtrack when he was still in high school.

“The struggle she goes through and how beautiful the storytelling is in that journey is something that spoke to me. Even as that ‘straight tough guy.’ The bottom line is being on the outside, and a journey of self-discovery. And whether or not we need someone else to be whole. I think it’s something everyone understands.”

Watching MacDonald in front of an audience, I’d say he does understand.

Of course, I’m not unbiased in this — I couldn’t help relive my own experience. But there’s an undeniable emotional commonality in Hedwig, despite her existence on the fringe. Or perhaps precisely because of that existence on the fringe. She is so far outside the box, anyone and everyone can see themselves reflected in her Maybelline-smudged eyes.

Of course MacDonald understands. In front of a regal opening-night crowd of drag queens and kings, an ambassadorial entourage from the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, and an outpouring of Hed-Heads (the fans who’ve made the show a cult hit), who could be more on the outside than the straight, soccer-playing prairie boy from Winnipeg?