REVIEW: TheatreLab's "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" 

Hedwig busts the basement's cherry in grand style.

click to enlarge Local actor Matt Shofner gives a career-defining performance as Hedwig, a transgender rock and roller from East Berlin, leaving it all on the stage in a physically and emotionally draining performance.

Lucy Dacus Photography

Local actor Matt Shofner gives a career-defining performance as Hedwig, a transgender rock and roller from East Berlin, leaving it all on the stage in a physically and emotionally draining performance.

If you keep track of what’s happening in Richmond theater, even vaguely, you know Matt Shofner. The petite powerhouse added two more notable entries to his impressive resume this year with scenery-chewing turns as Latin lover Adolpho in Swift Creek Mill’s “The Drowsy Chaperone” and a defiant Pinocchio in Virginia Rep’s “Shrek the Musical.” Beyond that, he is one of the co-founders of Spin, Spit & Swear, the company behind the oh-so-insidery theater blast, the Ghost Light After Party, a semi-regular Sunday night romp hosted by the Richmond Triangle Players.

But even Shofner’s many fans may not be prepared for his over-the-top triumph as the title character in TheatreLab’s “Hedwig and the Angry Inch.” This raucous rock musical gives Shofner the freedom to let his most flamboyant instincts run wild, while also providing him an opportunity to infuse an oddball character with depth, passion and pathos. Starting at the top of the show decked out in a colorful cape, riotous wig and impenetrable sunglasses (outré costume design by Emily Atkins), he finishes the show nearly naked, having laid bare Hedwig’s every emotional excess in a series of sometimes poetic, sometimes frenetic musical numbers.

Poor Hedwig has plenty to be emotional about. Born in East Germany before the fall of the Berlin Wall, she undergoes an inexpert sex change operation as part of a plan to escape to the west. In the first of many brutal ironies, the botched surgery leaves her with a small remnant of the man she once was and, just months later, the Wall falls. She eventually finds her way back to her first love – music – but not before more tortured romantic entanglements with soon-to-be rock star, Tommy Gnosis, and her current husband, Yitzhak (Bianca Bryan).

This backstory tumbles out during between-song rambles and is meant to be incidental to the main event, which is Hedwig’s opening night performance with his band, the Angry Inch. Cozily crammed into the Basement, TheatreLab’s charmingly ragged-looking performance space, the band alone is worth the price of admission. Under the musical direction of Anthony Smith, the tight four-piece combo manages musical theater prettiness and edge-metal nastiness with equal aplomb.

While the focus is clearly on Shofner, he has an expert foil in Bryan. Quiet and brooding during most scenes, Yitzhak shows flashes of impertinence and his last scene is a revelation. All through the show, Bryan’s backing vocals fill out the songs with the perfect sonic ballast. Director Maggie Roop has a real feel for the grungy rock show milieu; the short interludes where we catch snatches of Tommy Gnosis’s stadium show happening next door are a particularly smart device.

A Hollywood-heavy production of “Hedwig” is enjoying a celebrated revival on Broadway but that hasn’t fixed the rough edges of John Cameron Mitchell’s script. The denouement, in particular, is as confusing as it is illuminating. While I had a great time arguing with friends over what it all meant, others might just end up frustrated. An occasionally-cruel story of a transgendered person might seem passé during a time when LGBTQ issues are awash in hope and positivity. But, even so, Hedwig remains a singularly fascinating character and her portrayal a career-definer for Shofner.

“Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” co-produced by TheatreLab and Spin, Spit & Swear Productions, has been extended at The Basement, 300 East Broad, through December 6th. Tickets and information are available at theatrelabrva.com.

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