In 2020, Portland Center Stage’s Hedwig and the Angry Inch nailed it. It nailed it and then put a ton of glitter on that nail. It nailed it and then let the nail dry and didn't smudge the design.
Shows sold out. Reviewers raved. In many ways, the dynamic production exceeded the original subject matter—John Cameron Mitchell’s 2001 cult film of the same name. In the hands of a capable and passionate team of artists, the work transformed.
You could look back on the January 2020 run of Hedwig and the Angry Inch as one of the last nice things that happened before the pandemic presented a surprise two year and counting pop quiz to the world. PCS had already planned to remount the successful show in 2021, before the pandemic dashed and delayed that idea.
Now the production strides forth on towering heels. Delphon “DJ” Curtis Jr. reprises the lead role he reinvented—singing “Don't you know me Portland, Oregon? / I'm the new Berlin Wall / Try and tear me down!”
This remount presents the same cast, crew, and set—an elaborate, near-abandoned American mall—and the same knock-out performances that, once again, electrify every (angry) inch of the Ellyn Bye’s tiny downstairs performance space.
All that said, it’s hard to deny that the ghostly visage of the pandemic still casts its haze over the experience. For one thing, this rock musical feels like the type of show that would pair well with hefty glasses of wine, so the audience can get nice and lubricated for the raucous performance.
But the pandemic put a lid on that aspect of the Armory. At previous performances, you could still order at the little main lobby bar, even if you could no longer take your drink inside the theater, but at our show the bar was completely closed.
Getting into Portland Center Stage felt extremely sterile—which isn’t a bad thing and could be assuring to many. The staff are serious about checking your vaccination status and making sure everyone is masked. We understood, but the uniform lines felt extremely odd against the revolutionary energy of what we were on our way to see.
The front row seats of the theater—where Curtis Jr. had gyrated into the delighted faces of septenegatian attendees just two years before—were reserved now for stuffed animals. As we waited for the show to begin, the bright and crowded theater felt downright tense.
But then Ithica Tell—playing Hedwig’s stage director / husband Yitzhak—rolled into the room and started warming up the crowd. Similar to the 2020 production, the audience enters with a feeling that the show has already begun. Yitzhak loudly monologued a series of complaints about Hedwig, setting the stage for the couple’s duality-laden drama.
By the time Hedwig made her appearance—descending a busted escalator in a denim onesie and cape, absolutely annihilating “Tear Me Down”—we’d forgotten anything felt weird at all.
Part of the magic of Hedwig is the musical’s intention—from the very outset—to break down barriers between audience and performer. In its sweeter moments, it’s an acknowledgement. In wilder ones, it’s Hedwig dancing on tables and thrusting fairly close to the audience seated up front.
Returning to live theater with this production, after the distance that many of us have maintained for two years, is nothing short of a shock to the system. But it's also a strong reminder of how good theater can be and why we missed it so much.
Ellyn Bye Studio at the Armory, Wed-Sun, through Mar 6, tickets & info here, $25 & Up