Scaling the heights of Hedwig Is Hedwig the new Hamlet?
by Drew Rowsome
Whenever an actor tackles the daunting lead role in Hamlet, it is a true test and subject to much speculation. How will their interpretation stack up against those that have come before? What new insight will they bring to the text? Will they triumph or go down in flames? Every new production of a classic becomes a competitive Olympic-esque event with audiences, and spectators, salivating at the prospect of either revelation or disaster.
The role of the diva at the heart of Hedwig and the Angry Inch brims with similar challenges. The role requires quicksilver mood changes, a huge emotional range from defiance to despair, and, not to be underestimated, the ability to create that arc while singing and dancing. The character of Hedwig is a star turn and the production will soar, or fail, on the strength of that star.
Nathaniel Bacon has star power in spades and his Hedwig commands the stage effortlessly, she is a true diva who mesmerizes. Hedwig's story is presented cleanly and clearly with the one-liners delivered with the panache and skill of a Joan Rivers-esque Borscht Belt drag queen - a wicked line is accompanied by an illustrating gesture and followed instantly by a "Can you believe I said that?" glance from beneath dramatic eyelashes. The vocals are solid and ringing though I feared for the damage to Bacon's vocal cords as he rasped and gutturally growled when needed.
Bacon has one huge advantage in his uncanny ability to project vulnerability simply by using his eyes. This comes in handy because this Hedwig possesses boundless energy and an inner strength that undercuts her downfall and eventual collapse. The Tina Turner inspired dance moves explode and it takes all of Bacon's abilities to make the audience believe that this far from physically delicate creature could be a has-been or never-was.
Bacon, or this production's director Alan Kinsella, have also disposed of Hedwig's alcoholic crutch, leaving Bacon to create the mood swings and final breakdown out of the character itself. This is the only place where one can see Bacon acting instead of inhabiting, but it also amplifies the subtext that Hedwig is creating her image as she goes along - on some level, she herself is also a calculated and calculating construction - creating a brief disconnect but an intriguing riff on the text.
This production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch at the Lower Ossington Theatre is very slick. The band is flawless and legitimately punky, creating an edge that offsets the stadium-worthy lighting. This adds to the excitement but the audience is forced to conjure the illusion that this is a dive bar out of their own imagination. This undercuts the dramatic final number but we are already so invested in Hedwig's saga and power of survival, that it is forgiven for the sake of catharsis. The music is so instantly catchy and relentlessly driving that it could probably salvage a mediocre version of Hedwig, but LOT is after far more than average. This Hedwig is a riveting entertainment and foregrouding the love stories while forefronting the bleaker themes, show an ambitious tackling of an aspiring-to-Shakespearian text.
Both Bacon and Kit Boulter as Yitzach are too good-looking for their roles and this production is too glossy for the material, but it is grounded it in a theatrical fantasy world that slides a knife into what is fantasy and what is reality: a space where gender benders, rock n' rollers and LOT itself, are continually exploring and pushing boundaries. I can't wait to see LOT's, Kinsella's or Bacon's, Hamlet. Even better if they do it as a rockin' musical.
Hedwig and the Angry Inchcontinues until at least Sat, May 17 at the Lower Ossington Theatre, 100A Ossington Ave. lowerossingtontheatre.com