Monday, April 26, 2010

Perishable Theatre: "Hedwig and the Angry Inch"

For all of its cultish qualities and contemporary concerns, the rock monologue Hedwig and the Angry Inch (now playing at Perishable Theatre) has a simple, almost archetypal, agenda. It is an inquiry into origins. What has so galvanized audiences over the years, one realizes, is not its radicalism but its urgency; the quest of self-discovery and re-creation has rarely felt so perilous. Sure, the story is about an East German boy who has sexual reassignment surgery in order to marry an American G.I. and escape from his stifling life, only to find that the surgery has been sloppily performed - she is left with a closed incision instead of a vagina, and an "angry inch" of flesh - and that the liberated life to which she has fled is in a Junction City, Kansas trailer park. But the show, structured around a series of divisions and reunions, is about the possibility of transcendence rather than the thrust of transgression. Abandoned by her G.I., unsatisfied in her new life, a mere spectator to the fall of the Berlin Wall, Hedwig forms a rock band of (presumably disaffected) Korean army wives: Hedwig and the Angry Inch. She falls in love with an earnest Christian teenager, Tommy Speck, and cultivates his blossoming religiosity and his musical talent. But when Tommy discovers Hedwig's unassigned sexuality, he leaves her and takes the songs they co-wrote on the road. Hedwig follows him, playing the dumpy dives in the shadows of his sold-out arenas - hence her performance at Perishable, a stone's throw from the Dunk. The show ends with a suggestion of reconciliation - not of Hedwig with Tommy, exactly, but of Hedwig with herself.

Perishable's production, directed by Megan Sandberg-Zakian in a creatively reconfigured space and on a spare set by Sara Ossana, is unforgivingly immediate. From the moment Alexander Platt makes his gloriously androgynous entrance as Hedwig, to well after he takes his even more ambivalent and triumphant exit, the audience is in a state of alert excitement. Platt's charged performance - erotic, self-effacing, spontaneous, and utterly compelling - is every match for the script's ebullient lyricism; his voice, incredibly, is very nearly a match for the songs' extravagant dynamism; his wanton physicality is certainly a match for Hedwig's desperation and ambivalence. He is, in short, fearless. He is buffeted and buttressed by a volcanic back-up band and, in Elizabeth Gotauco, who plays Hedwig's long-suffering transvestite husband Yitzhak, a superb co-star and scintillating singer. Her top-range vocalizations - all "ooohs" and "aaaahs" of thrilling clarity - are so perfectly tuned and adroitly performed they stun the heart. Somehow, in the sonic mass of guitars and drums and keyboards and voices, she finds her note each time and draws it out like a silver thread.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Trinity Rep: An Unbalanced "Odd Couple"

The first act of The Odd Couple, showing at Trinity Rep through May 9, is the funniest show that I have seen at any theatre this season. Until this past week, during which Perishable opened Hedwig and the Angry Inch and the Brown/Trinity Consortium put on Uncle Vanya, competitors for the title included Elemental Theatre’s Amadeus, the Gamm Theatre’s 4:48 Psychosis, and Trinity’s own crepuscular Cabaret, but this is not meant as faint praise. (To be fair, all of our local theatres have essayed other comic plays, but the ones I have seen were empurpled with mordancy or melancholy; The Odd Couple is the only unmitigated comedy I’ve been to.) It is a pleasure to laugh at Neil Simon’s jokes because they are funny and not merely because they are certified with an appropriately goofy cadence or broad gesture. Actually, the first act of the show is too funny; it is as tightly acted and well staged as the second act should be. The second act is markedly less amusing; having established Simon’s dynamic early on, the cast have left nowhere for themselves to go. This is not to say that the performers lose energy, but rather that they work furiously for diminishing – or, at the very least, familiar – returns. This is comedy as gold-mining: it’s easy to get started, nearly impossible to sustain.

Of course, Oscar Madison’s slovenly shoulders and Felix Unger’s fastidious fury have kept the show popular and profitable for four and a half decades. A certain type of comedy – brusque but affectionate; masculine but not macho – is realized in this play. Simon’s vision, x-ray but not x-rated, revealed to audiences the stunted stubbornness of the male psyche. There is nothing romantic – or Romantic – about these men. Indeed, their feelings about marriage are pragmatic rather than poetic: it may not be a lot of fun, but, hey, everyone needs a companion.

The play has a shallow enough plot and a deep enough penetration into our culture to obviate summary. Still. Disheveled bachelor Oscar Madison (Fred Sullivan, Jr.), a sportswriter and poker-night host, takes his thoroughly domesticated friend Felix Unger (Brian McEleney) into his home when Felix’s wife leaves him. It turns out that they are completely incompatible: camaraderie recapitulates matrimony. Oscar sullies reflexively; Felix tidies (and cooks, and carps) obsessively. After three weeks of this antagonistic arrangement, Oscar plans a double date for Felix and himself with the Pigeon sisters (Phyllis Kaye and Nance Williamson), two English divorcĂ©es from upstairs. Felix eventually relents, but commits to having a miserable time. During the course of the evening, Felix has a guilty, gaudy breakdown about his ex-wife and children, and the Pigeons, as pigeons will, eat it up. Consoling him with coos and caresses, they forget all about Oscar, frustrating his hopes for a lascivious – pardon the pun – lark. The tenuous relationship permanently fractured by this betrayal, Oscar sends Felix packing, but we don’t worry about him: when we see him last, he is heading up to the Pigeons’ place, where we are certain he will be taken under wing.

Director Curt Columbus handles the script and the staging deftly. The actors’ timing is perfect – Joe Wilson, Jr., playing against type as a meekly uxorious pal of Oscar’s, is especially funny, even in a minor role – and their movement around Eugene Lee’s large stage is purposeful and precise. What the play doesn’t convey is a sense of deepening crisis: the actors, like the poker players they depict, seem to be playing for small stakes. The screws of comic dread are never tightened, and the problems of the play’s second act are those of its first. Fred Sullivan, Jr., a wily and winning actor, doesn’t depict Oscar’s affection for Felix curdling into aggression; instead, he begins the show aggressively, his gruffness not merely skin-deep but intrinsic. The comic payoff is immediate and gratifying, but it doesn’t accrue. Brian McEleney plays Felix Ungar as the direct descendant of his Malvolio from Twelfth Night – impacted and imperious – but he seems not to trust Ungar’s innocent energy, and so hangs his characterization on strings: he performs with all the spontaneity and selflessness of a marionette. His work is always either reactive or provocative; it is, either way, over-executed. Ungar does not need to be nuanced or internal, but he ought to be oblivious. McEleney is too clued-in to the comic potential of his cluelessness, so his performance is asphyxiated by self-awareness. The same reflexivity that made his Richard III (way back in 2008) so menacing inhibits his comic characterization.

As the bird-brained and like-minded Pigeon sisters, Phyllis Kaye and Nance Williamson are both wonderfully animated. But the Pigeons aren’t really characters; they’re more like holograms of women, transparent and distorted, projected from a skewed imagination –whether that imagination is Simon’s or his male characters’, I’m not sure – so even as we laugh at Kaye’s and Williamson’s portrayals, we puzzle over their purpose in the play. Are we meant to be laughing at them for their giggling disregard for social convention or at Oscar for his bald lust? That this question remains unanswered is, perhaps, the disappointment of the entire second act. The play’s comic potential has already been mined, its gold revealed. What’s left but to sift through the loose dirt of goofy cadence and broad gesture?