StageQ Opens “Hedwig” as Politicians Set Drag and Gender Identity in their Crosshairs.
Updated: Mar 9
MADISON, WI: A thick haze hangs in the air, beams of light shooting through them. Empty beer cans and dusty rugs litter the stage. The songs of David Bowie, Iggy Pop, and Lou Reed blast through the speakers. A small man in a leather jacket and a purple fauxhawk is readying the stage for the show that is about to begin. This is the stage that StageQ has set at the Bartell Theatre for their production of the rock musical “Hedwig and the Angry Inch.” Nationally, however, politicians have set a different type of stage for this type of show to take place on.
“This show couldn’t be more relevant and more subversive” says Zak Stowe, Hedwig’s producer and lighting designer, “It’s a giant middle finger to everything that conservative politicians are doing across the country. Which is honestly something that StageQ has been doing since our founding over 20 years ago.”
“Hedwig and the Angry Inch” is a musical with a script written by John Cameron Mitchell (who performed the titular character both on and off Broadway) and music and lyrics by Stephen Trask. Set up as part-concert, part-stand-up, part-one-woman-show, “Hedwig” shares her life’s story in between performing songs that range from soft ballads to pulsing punk rock. In the background is her band, “The Angry Inch” and her faithful--yet often abused--husband, Yitzhak. Traditionally, both roles are performed by actors in drag--Hedwig in feminine drag, and Yitzhak in masculine drag. Both characters also live their lives outside of almost any definition of gender one could find.
“Hedwig, at its core, is a story about a person who is trying to survive while coming to terms with their life not ending up the way they had imagined.” says one of the show's directors, Jay Gile.
Hedwig shares with us her story of growing up as a young boy in East Berlin before the wall fell, her abusive childhood, and her marriage to an American G.I. who promised to help her escape to a new life in America. In order to do that however--and to satisfy the strict rules of marriage in East Berlin--Hansel had to become Hedwig and undergo a risky, back-alley gender reassignment surgery. In the end, her surgery was botched, she was divorced and left penniless in a Kansas trailer park, and now struggles to get her music career off the ground with her new husband Yitzhak, a former drag queen from Croatia.
“The story is funny, sad, and intense at times, and the music beautifully weaves everything together.” says the show’s other co-director and StageQ’s Vice-President, Shawn Padley, “you're in for an experience that's going to stick with you.”
“She is massively flawed and egotistical and makes people uncomfortable, all things that people deem as unrespectable,” adds Gile, “I think it’s an important time to give a bit of a f-you to what is the “right way” to be and Hedwig does that.”
StageQ’s Hedwig opens now in an atmosphere heavy with hostility towards people who don’t adhere to “traditional” gender norms. The recent passage of Tennessee’s anti-drag legislation, as well as bans and limitations to gender-affirming care in various different states has been on the front of the minds of the show’s producers and creatives.
“With anti-drag and bigoted, anti-trans laws being passed all across the country, we see how important it is to showcase the stories of people who don’t adhere to gender norms and Hedwig does it with such abandon and utter contempt for anyone who would try and tear her down.” says Stowe. “What started as StageQ wanting to produce a queer cult classic turned into a bigger political statement that fits all too well with current events.”
“Recently I’ve been hearing from LGBTQ theatre companies from around the country. Many that are in states with pending anti-drag legislation are worried about the amount of limitations that will be imposed on them. Others have been receiving hateful comments about drag queen storytimes and other similar events they try to have for their communities. It’s a scary time. We might not feel it as much in bright blue Madison, but the hate lives all around us.”
But all of this hasn’t deterred the cast and crew of StageQ. “Being a part of this show has been a blessing. Having actors that bring such strong instincts and care to a story like this is the dream of any director,” says Gile. “Everyone involved -cast and crew- in this show has brought their A-game and I couldn’t have asked for anything better.”
Director Padley echoes Gile about working with such talented people. “It's been so rewarding to see our actors all bring something totally different to each role. The portrayals of each character have developed so organically and the story is told with a very different energy between each cast to the point where I'd even recommend seeing the show twice to get the whole experience.”
StageQ has two different casts that will rotate every other performance to allow for both time off for the actors, and to open the show to more people. “I'm astounded that our three cast members have been able to pull this off. As an actor, I could never!” adds Padley.
StageQ hopes that not only will this show shine a spotlight on drag and identity as both an art form and a method of survival, but also give audiences a rockin good time. “People should come see this show because it’s going to be a fun time. It’s a fun, engaging piece of theatre and the songs slap so hard.” says Gile.
Stowe adds, “Hedwig is a perfectly imperfect symbol for not letting the world define you and learning to be you on your own terms. She is messy but so are we all.”
StageQ’s Hedwig and the Angry Inch runs at the Bartell Theatre in downtown Madison for nine performances from March 10th through the 25th. Tickets start at $25 and can be purchased at stageq.org.