The stage is set for a night of glamour and rock at Arts West’s Hedwig and the Angry Inch. A sign in the corner reads “Black Trans Lives Matter”, inclusive pride flags sit on the desk, and the stage emanates Seattle’s Pioneer Square, setting up this modernized and localized interpretation of the show. The actors enter an exit as the audience finds their seats, checking on wigs, the soundboard, and whatever else Hedwig needs to start her show. When the show begins Hedwig (Nicholas Japaul Bernard) enters decked in pride flags and a contrasting American flag slung over her shoulders, but when she takes it off it reveals the confederate flag on the other side, immediately calling out the racist undercurrents of America. The opening speech, full of self-aware comments and Seattle-specific references, sets up a new vision for Hedwig: She exists in the modern day and the past, calling audience members to suspend their disbelief as she carries them through her story.
The modern-day aspects serve Hedwig well in addressing the issues that genderqueer and transgender people, especially those of color, face in America today. While staying true to the historical aspects of the show, Hedwig is timeless, referencing both old and new, reminding us that transgender people have been here and will continue to be here, and their stories deserve to be heard. The show's bones lend themselves to be manipulated and altered to fit the story that needs to be told at the time, and the actors and creative team do a fantastic job of sharing the story in a way that feels true to them and their artistry.
A myriad of multimedia effects enhances this shows modern-day interpretation. Cameras project other angles of the actors. Speeches, and films are projected onto a white screen and stream from a TV on the corner of the stage. To account for these additions, a third character is added, playing The Angry Inch & Voice of Tommy Gnosis (Michael B. Maine), who adds stoic comedy to the show, interacting with Hedwig and Yitzhak (Kataka Corn) throughout. These elements place Hedwig in the world of news cycles, publicized trials, and digital footprint when you can know everything about everyone at the press of a button. Hedwig is not just on stage, but on camera, which immortalizes every choice she makes. The only disservice about these elements is the use of pre-recorded backing tracks, which kills the usual rock concert vibe of the show, makes quieter moments hard to hear, and takes away much of the performer's freedom during musical numbers.
Nicholas Japaul Bernard shines as he reprises the titular role of Hedwig, bringing excellent vocals and raw energy to the iconic character. Bernard played the role with a grounded confidence that gave Hedwig as much witty playfulness and improvisation as she deserves. Bernard’s Hedwig is hilarious and believable in the highest highs and the lowest lows, as he portrays the upbeat moments with as much expression as the darkest ones. For Hedwig, everything is a performance, and even the most vulnerable parts of her come with the knowledge that she is being watched, and she knows how to entertain. Vocally, Bernard is powerful and seasoned, delivering the vocal power and softness needed for the glam-rock role.
Kataka Corn is a standout as Yitzhak, bringing groundedness and power to the stage. Though subdued by Hedwig, Yitzhak is not left behind, delivering some of the most memorable vocal moments of the show. Yitzhak sings powerful backup vocals, until her shining moment in “The Long Grift”, which Corn sings with undeniable strength and ease, leaving the audience understanding exactly why Hedwig is so threatened by her. Corn continued to impress throughout the show, and was the phenomenal counterpart to Bernard's Hedwig. Together, their vocal power was astounding and incredibly moving.
Hedwig has a particularly important story to tell in the world we live in today. In a time of drag bans, beer boycotts, and restrictions on gender-affirming care, it is essential that we tell trans stories in authentic and moving ways. Hedwig not only tells a story of struggle and trauma but a story of queer acceptance and love that leaves every audience member feeling connected to Hedwig, and each other. This show is a call to action, urging everybody to use their voice, live authentically, and encourage people to make the world a safe place for everyone. It is brave and beautiful to be yourself, and no one should ever tear you down.
Hedwig and the Angry Inch runs now through July 23rd, 2023 at ArtsWest in West Seattle.