Photo: Joan Marcus
Photo: Joan Marcus

Inside Hedwig and the Angry Inch with Director Michael Mayer

When you’ve been not-so-quietly obsessed with the same musical for nearly two decades, it seems almost impossible to put into writing why it’s so incredible. But I’m going to try.

First, there’s her story. Hedwig is John Cameron Mitchell’s creation, a transgender songstress from East Germany whose adult life was shaped in large part by a sex change operation gone bad and an ex-lover who stole all of her best songs, ditched her and of course, made it big. She is such a compelling character, and though flawed (aren’t we all?), her openness and vulnerability make even the most cold-hearted thaw with compassion.

Then, there’s the music. Stephen Trask’s creations run the gamut from heart-wrenching ballads to rage-filled punk rock songs. Not to mention “The Origin of Love,” quite literally one of the most stunning songs I’ve ever heard, based on a story from Plato’s Symposium that artfully describes how the gods split us mortals in half (we originally had two faces and eight limbs), and we now spend our lives looking for our other half and trying to put ourselves back together by making love. Beautiful, right?

And finally, there’s the experience. Hedwig takes the stage with her band, and her husband Yitzhak (who gave up the limelight per Hedwig’s demand), and delivers a two-hour, no intermission performance that holds your attention the entire time. We watch as this woman who has been through so much emotionally and physically flirts with and entertains an audience while her ex plays a stadium show nearby, and slowly begins to unravel until she is completely exposed in pretty much every way possible.

It’s heartbreaking and riveting; it’s Hedwig and the Angry Inch. And the Tony Award-winning play is at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater through this Sunday, July 2.

I caught one of the show’s first performances starring Scottish actor Euan Morton, the latest in a series of wildly talented Hedwigs including Neil Patrick Harris, Michael C. Hall, Darren Criss and of course, John Cameron Mitchell. A few days later, I had the opportunity to chat with Hedwig’s Tony Award-winning director Michael Mayer (Spring Awakening, American Idiot), a Bethesda, Maryland native who grew up seeing shows at the Kennedy Center and Arena Stage.

Mayer loves that Hedwig is at the Kennedy Center not only because the venue is in his hometown and his family (including his dad) and friends can come to see it, but also because of its relevance to our current political climate.

“There’s a lot of who Hedwig is, what she represents and what the message of the show communicates that might not be considered as part of the new Republican agenda in this current administration such as it is,” Mayer said. “It’s all so f–king binary at this point, right? Red state, blue state, Republican, Democrat – there’s no gray area at all anymore, and this is a show that celebrates that space between the binary in a very real way.”

He uses “The Origin of Love” as a perfect example (I stifled my squeal of joy on the phone), touching on the three sexes the gods split in half (male-male, female-female and male-female) and how Hedwig represents that third sex.

“Hedwig is certainly not a binary creature,” he said. “We grow to not just admire her, but to love her. Her personal journey is loving herself and the difference that she finds within herself, and owning that in a deep way [that allows her] to move on with her life.”

Mayer credits Morton with bringing an authenticity to the role, as both an expat and someone with considerable life experience, that helps to convey Hedwig’s world-weariness as she stumbles into complete exhaustion onstage. But just as Hedwig is unable to go on, Morton assumes the role of Tommy Gnosis (the douchebag ex who is playing, in this production, on the National Mall), and gives a “fierce, full-on performance” that showcases the actor’s ability to access the diametrically opposed personas of these two characters in a matter of seconds.

“He takes us on an absolutely emotional journey that feels completely personal to him,” Mayer said of Morton. “It’s less of an imaginative leap than it is a real incarnation.”

There’s also the kiss that Morton plants on an unassuming audience member (there may have been tongue involved), the drink he spews on folks in the front row and the (this is my favorite) latecomers that he shames in front of the entire Eisenhower Theater for showing up after the show started – and for drinking a beer that Hedwig views as subpar.

His DC references are equally as fantastic as his interactions with the audience – Morton cracks jokes about Bethesda being up in the balcony (perhaps a nod to Mayer’s old stomping ground?), how he got stuck in the inner lane around Dupont Circle for days on end, Tommy’s show on the National Mall and a few references to hanging out on H Street, including a visit to Sticky Rice.

“Euan has been extraordinary in terms of how he has taken on a responsibility to personalize each of the venues in each of the cities,” Mayer said. “All credit to him.”

I was mesmerized by Morton’s range – from casually namedropping spots in DC with an insider’s knowledge and sassing (or coming onto) audience members to ripping off his completely over-the-top wig and finally, ultimately, handing it over to Yitzhak, silently giving him permission to pursue his dreams as a performer.

“[Yitzhak] is released from bondage and literally allowed to embrace his individuality,” Mayer said. “That’s a message that I think has never been more important to hear than now.”

Don’t miss the opportunity to see this truly remarkable play at the Kennedy Center through Sunday. Go to www.kennedy-center.org for ticket details.

The Kennedy Center: 2700 F St. NW, DC; 202-467-4600; www.kennedy-center.org