Hedwig in the House

Phoenix's Artists' Theater Project inches its angry way toward Hotel Congress

Glam-rock fans and movie buffs familiar with the 2001 cinematic triumph that is Hedwig and the Angry Inch should know the original stage production of the outrageous musical generally involves much more audience participation.

Usually presented in a cabaret setting, the 1998 off-Broadway rock 'n' roll musical--by John Cameron Mitchell and Stephen Trask--puts the tale of transsexual rock star and East German émigré Hedwig Schmidt-Robinson right in the laps of its audience.

This weekend, those laps will be seated in the intimate environs of Hotel Congress, downtown Tucson's hip and venerable bastion of on-the-edge and off-the-cuff arts and culture. The Phoenix-based company Artists' Theatre Project will present Hedwig and the Angry Inch there Friday and Saturday night.

"Artists' Theatre Project is all about breaking down the fourth wall in the theater," says director Scott Pierce. "We're trying to showcase theater that has to be very interactive."

Pierce co-founded the Artists' Theatre Project earlier this year to produce a successful three-week run of Hedwig during May in Scottsdale. Pierce's partners in the project are producer Russell Beyer and artistic director James Asimenios (who plays the title role of the "internationally ignored song stylist," Hedwig).

"Our show is not really for the weak at heart," says Pierce. "If you don't really want to participate, you might not want to come."

Let's put it this way: If you remember how, in the movie version, a middle-aged gentlemen gets treated to a personal "car wash"-style table dance from Hedwig during the galloping country-rock song "Sugar Daddy," you'll have some idea of the sort of audience participation that will occur at an on-stage version of Hedwig and the Angry Inch.

Pierce says the Artists' Theatre Project was born about the time that he, Asimenios and Beyer jumped into a car last Halloween, dressed in full drag, for a road trip to Las Vegas. Their destination: the Nevada Theatre Company's version of Hedwig and the Angry Inch.

"Everyone was in couches and chairs. It was really more like you were in sitting in Hedwig's living room than a conventional theater play," Pierce says. "We had seen it once before in the Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts, which is a huge auditorium. It was a good show, but I didn't feel like it connected with the audience. It was more sort of an 'us and them' scenario."

If it's about anything, Hedwig is about inclusion. Take the song "Freaks," in which the chorus borrows a chilling line from the classic Tod Browning 1932 film of the same title: "one of us."

The Vegas road trip was a defining moment for the men, and the inspiration for their company, Pierce says.

They chose Hedwig as their first show because it was, and remains, so close to their hearts. They chose a tiny, cabaret-style setting with a makeshift stage in a Scottsdale bar called the Tinseltown Tavern.

"We just went crazy and dressed that place up," Pierce says.

He says Hotel Congress is the perfect venue--"It popped into my mind first, before anything else." Well, naturally, since the Congress is intimate and outlaw-artsy, infused with a sort of anything-goes atmosphere. "We actually intended to come to Tucson from the beginning, because so many people from Tucson came up to Scottsdale to see us in May."

In case you don't know, Hedwig's tale begins in Communist East Berlin, where she was born a boy named Hansel and lived with an inattentive German mother long ago abandoned by Hansel's dad, an American soldier.

In family tradition, Hansel falls for and marries an American Army corporal, Luther Robinson, for whom he becomes a woman named Hedwig and moves to a trailer park in Junction City, Kansas. But Hedwig's sex-change operation was tragically botched, leaving her with a "Barbie-doll crotch" adorned with the miniscule, titular "angry inch."

Resilient to the end, Hedwig forms a killer rock band as a vehicle to sing her story for the masses. While struggling for fame and playing seedy dives and hotel bars, she writes a hit tune for lover-protégé Tommy Gnosis, who eventually casts her aside, too.

In the version Tucsonans will see this weekend, Asimenios plays not only Hedwig but also portrays Hansel, his mother, Luther and Tommy. The requisite live band, complete with sexually ambiguous, All About Eve-style background singer Yitzhak (Tracy Payne), is on hand to rock the house.

Hedwig and the Angry Inch was written by the multi-talented John Cameron Mitchell, who played the lead role in the original production and both starred in and directed the movie version.

The show's balls-out rock songs, by Stephen Trask (of the band Cheater), pay tribute to such icons as Lou Reed, David Bowie, Marc Bolan and Iggy Pop. They comprise some of the most glorious glam-rock of the last 20 years--songs such as "Wicked Little Town," "Wig in a Box," "Midnight Radio," "Tear Me Down," "Nailed" and "The Origin of Love."

"We have an incredible group of musicians and designers and artist friends working with us," Pierce says. "Coming together for this show was a sort of a fateful event where we have become one big happy Hedwig family."

Artists' Theatre Project is considering talking Hedwig to Washington D.C. and San Francisco. And, enthused by its show's success, the company is planning a four-show season for 2004 and 2005.

It will include two other acclaimed, off-Broadway musicals--Debbie Does Dallas (yes, a version of the porn-movie classic) and Bat Boy, which tells the story of a unique individual made famous in the pages of the Weekly World News.

"They're both really good rock 'n' roll musicals that will attract a very diverse crowd of people that don't see theater as often," says Pierce. "They're more plays for people who want to see a rock 'n' roll show."

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