Smithereen’s “Hedwig”

Camp, with sublime intensity

Jordan Gwiazdowski offers an extraordinary performance as the transgender rock queen Hedwig, with a physicality that carries the production by emerging company Smithereen.

By - May 6th, 2013 02:43 pm

Jordan Gwiazdowski (the blonde in the center) powerfully leads the cast of Smithereen Productions’ “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” running at Carte Blanche through this weekend.

In one of the multiple emotional climaxes of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, presented by Smithereen Productions at Carte Blanche Studios, Jordan Gwiazdowski, as transgender drama queen Hedwig, rips open her dress, yanks out a grapefruit boob, and crushes it in one hand like it was simultaneously her ex-boyfriend’s juicy heart and an agonized part of herself. This is high camp by the book: painful, grotesque, and hilariously funny.

As musicals go, there’s nothing quite like Hedwig, and there probably never will be. Perfectly blending its late 80’s obsessions—Cold War politics, drag queens, punk rock, performance art and heady academic theories about power and desire — it’s become a cult classic, running for two years off-Broadway and made into a movie starring its creator, John Cameron Mitchell.

Hedwig is a survivor. Raised in East Germany before the fall of the Berlin Wall, she was abandoned by her G.I. husband, who convinced her to get a sex change, which was horribly botched. Then, dumped by her teenaged rockstar boyfriend after helping him attain stardom, she’s reduced to pathetically stalking his national tour from city to city, doing gigs in tiny venues to near-empty houses. Forget about lemons; life has handed her a garbage bag full of rinds. But out of her abjectness she fashions a mighty presence: unshakably convinced of her own worth, she carries on — with the help of PBR, which she swigs, like a lady, through a straw in the can.

The show literally takes place at Carte Blanche Studios – Smithereen has customized the script with some razor-sharp hometown zingers and details, including the venue where her rockstar ex is performing: the Marcus Amphitheater. The onstage band does a great job looking like the kind of dim-bulb musicians Hedwig would be able to scrape together, and as her musical backup/current boyfriend Yitzak, Mary Kelly does passable boy-drag, with a five-o’clock shadow and a furious, murderous stare.

But the show really belongs to Jordan Gwiazdowski, and it’s hard to imagine a Milwaukee actor better able to pull off the role of Hedwig. Gwiazdowski has displayed a distinctive physicality and presence to his previous roles in the city – Jason in his company Fools For Tragedy’s production of Medea, for example, or Winston Puppet in Youngblood’s recent Cartoon – and that same talent is on display here. He gives it all for this show: strutting, crooning, scream-singing like Sid Vicious, thrash-dancing like Iggy Pop, and delivering stand-up drag as dry as a martini.

In the course of the evening, Hedwig undergoes a series of surreal transformations: from a blowsy chanteuse with a foot-high bouffant, Nike-swoop eyebrows, and eye makeup that resembles a cross between Michelle Bachman and a pug dog; to a screaming riot grrl in an even bigger wig (which, defying the laws both of fashion and physics, is simply tacked on to her existing wig); to a nearly-naked figure who might be the rockstar Tommy Gnosis himself, or maybe not. An epiphany takes place. We might not be able to explain it, but Gwiazdowski’s raw performance ensures we feel it.

Smithereen’s production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch runs only one more weekend, with shows Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. Tickets can be purchased online.

Categories: Theater

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