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Hedwig is back

Cult musical returns to Gladstone Theatre

Tim Oberholzer as Hedwig and Rebecca Noel as Yitzhak. Hedwig and the Angry Inch returns to the Gladstone Theatre Oct 1 to 4. Credit: Andrew Alexander

It’s a story so well known in the gay community that it hardly needs an introduction. East-German “girly boy” Hansel falls in love with an American soldier and decides to marry him in order to flee the country. Sex reassignment surgery is needed to make the union legitimate, but the operation is botched, leaving Hansel — now Hedwig — with a dysfunctional mound of flesh between her legs (the eponymous angry inch).

After her husband leaves her, Hedwig dons her now-iconic blond wig, forms a rock band and hits the road for an epic and poignant journey of self-discovery.

Written by John Cameron Mitchell and Stephen Trask, Hedwig and the Angry Inch premiered in 1998, shocking audiences with the overt sexuality of its transgender main character — the height of edginess at the time. Lately, the musical has been enjoying a return to the limelight, kicked off by actor Neil Patrick Harris’s turn in the starring role on Broadway.

The show ran at the Gladstone Theatre in April and was so well-received that organizers decided to bring it back for a second run. Producer Tim Oberholzer, who also plays the starring role, says that he’s trying to preserve the intimacy of the show rather than focusing on the glitter and high-camp style it’s come to be associated with over the years. “A lot of times, people expect [the show] to be very ostentatious and that sort of thing, which I don’t think is sort of at the heart or the root of that character.”

Oberholzer says he initially had some apprehensions about bringing an unconventional musical to Ottawa audiences. But heading into the show’s second run, he says he’s more confident. “I think it will allow us, maybe, to even take more risks this time with it and push it a little further, because it seems like people really embraced it.”

Meanwhile, director Stewart Matthews says he’s working on tightening up the production for its second run. He says the beauty of the show is in its emotional appeal to the audience. “The audience gets to come in to the show to feel a part of that life, and so when [Hedwig] makes discoveries, they make discoveries. It’s just a beautifully well-written show.”

The character of Hedwig is very nuanced, both in terms of her gender identity and her personality. Oberholzer, himself a straight actor, says he sees Hedwig’s particular gender identity as somewhat secondary to the character.

Matthews says that he sees Hedwig not as a transgender woman, but as a gay man who is in search of his identity. “It’s a very simple storyline about a man who searches for his own identity. Every human being in the entire world goes through that.”

He points to the character’s decision to undergo sex reassignment surgery in order to get married as a woman. “Yes, he goes through the whole transgender operation, but it isn’t his idea,” he says. “It wasn’t about his choice. It wasn’t about him feeling he was a woman. It wasn’t anything like that at all . . . he’s out to find himself, and he just goes on the longest journey in order to do it.”

Oberholzer, too, says he doesn’t see Hedwig as being representative of all trans women. “I’d hate people to think that Hedwig is a really accurate depiction of that, because . . . in some ways it is kind of stereotypical, and in some ways it’s very fantastic. The sort of day-to-day realities of being a trans person, I think, are not touched on in the show in a way that they could be that would really send a more powerful message.”

Matthews says that Hedwig’s character is more about what each individual actor brings to her. “If you try and take Hedwig and just enforce Hedwig upon an actor, you can end up with entirely the wrong way of putting it all together,” he says. “If you let them play with it for a bit, you will find your Hedwig show in that actor.”

He says Oberholzer’s portrayal makes the character more accessible. “He’s not a super handsome man with a fantastic physique. He’s a normal man with a normal physique, and so all of these things allow Hedwig to be even more normal . . . If Hedwig’s not real, you don’t feel anything for Hedwig.”  

As far as his depiction, Oberholzer says he tries to focus more on the character and less on the sparkle. “You can sort of find a little bit of Hedwig in yourself no matter who you are, which I think is really the appeal of the character.”