Tender androgyny
By David Ollington

Justin Van Pelt as Hedwig in the Just Off Broadway production of Hedwig and the Angry Itch (photo courtesy of the Eubank Productions)

The quality, production standards and artistry of Eubank Productions continue to increase. Case in point is Hedwig and the Angry Itch at the Just Off Broadway Theatre. If the ambition realized in this production serves as a barometer, Eubank Productions will soon rank high in the local theatre echelon.

Surrounded by tables and chairs, the elevated stage sits in an intimate cabaret
As the audience enters the theatre, an urban rock band prepares to play. With wit and physical humor, the bass player, keyboardist and guitarist cavort. A dramatic entrance of the back up singer, Yitzhak, causes discomfort among the instrumentalists.

Justin Van Pelt plays Hedwig, somewhere between a drag queen and a gender unspecific role. He (for want of a better pronoun) sings lead for the band. Playwright John Cameron Mitchell with composer/lyricist Stephen Trask created a concert with Hedwig delivering monologues between each tune.

In a luxurious blonde wig and attention-getting outfits, Hedwig screams lyrics into the microphone. He then imparts the bizarre and tragic details of his life. Born in East Berlin before the wall fell (He states, "I was born on the other side of a town ripped in two."), he grew up listening to American radio, having to do so strangely — lying with his head in the oven because of an overprotective mother.

He continues his saga (between numbers), and we learn that during the blossoming of his youth, a man approached him and gained his trust by offering him candy. His song "Sugar Daddy" details the feelings around this relationship. The sugar daddy asked for Hedwig to marry him so they might defect to America. Hedwig underwent a shoddy sex-change operation, leaving him with tragically deformed, androgynous genitals. "The Angry Itch" refers to both the name of the onstage band and the horror that lies between Hedwig's legs.

After his move to the U.S., Hedwig's marriage dissolved and he met and fell in love with Tommy Gnosis. According to Hedwig, Hedwig taught Tommy about life, love and music. Gnosis left the relationship and became a rock star sensation. Simultaneously with Hedwig's performance, Tommy plays a concert of his own to an adoring crowd.

Co-directors of Hedwig and the Angry Itch made a clever choice for portraying this. The Just-Off Broadway Theatre lies below the hill from Liberty Memorial. Hedwig announces that Tommy plays tonight at Liberty Memorial. Several times he marches to the exit and opens the door. We see the cut limestone directly outside and hear Tommy's voice, usually saying something that infuriates Hedwig. The door shuts and the sound stops, believably portraying a simultaneous Liberty Memorial concert.

Yitzhak, we learn, not only sings backup for Hedwig but also is his current, androgynous lover. This makes for both comic and shocking onstage conflict: rude gestures and bitchy comments. Hedwig angrily unplugs Yitzhak's microphone to shut him up.

Mitchell’s play makes for an androgynous archetypal. The script includes many biblical references. Hedwig suggests that Adam and Eve were in paradise before God separated them, suggesting that bliss equals male and female together, united, in one person. The second song of the evening, "Origin of Love," makes androgynous connections with gods and goddesses.

Van Pelt created a tender Hedwig. He accesses emotional pathos by contrasting Hedwig's nasty, drag queen humor with sensitive warmth. He manages to infuse raunch with elegance. It's Van Pelt's production. He sings lead in the ten songs, executes lengthy biographical speeches and dramatically changes his look; Hedwig transforms from glamorously feminine to a very scantily clad masculine. Ashely Otis coached his movement and Van Pelt navigates well in heels, manipulates fabric, hurls himself around and performs an athletic slide down the stage.

Hedwig and the Angry Itch runs an hour and a half. Van Pelt accomplishes a quality performance but falls short of carrying the entire production. The responsive side of Hedwig that he finds could contrast more with extreme aspects of manic, bitter or joyful.

Van Pelt also designed the projections used, which are slick, clean and clear. Often images projected behind the actors illustrate the concurrent song lyrics. This helps because the sound mix of Van Pelt and the band makes the words difficult to understand. A re-engineering of the Just Off Broadway Theatre acoustics would help.

Hedwig and the Angry Itch runs through April 10 at the Just Off Broadway Theatre, 3051 Central at 31st and Wyandotte in Penn Valley Park, Fridays and Saturdays, 8 and 11:30 p.m., Sundays at 7 p.m. and Mondays at 8 p.m. Admission is $15, $10, students and seniors, and $5 student rush (with valid I.D.). The $25 VIP rate includes reserved front row table seating, poster autographed headshot of Miss Hedwig and a complimentary beverage of choice. The Theatre Industry Rate (with valid documentation: i.e. headshot/resume, recent program, etc.) is $10 for general admission and $20 for VIP. They offer a group rate of $10 per ticket for a group of 10 or more. Call 816-224-3004.

David Ollington can be contacted at



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