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Slightly disturbing, yet wickedly entertaining 

Rock On

Performers often must overcome the need to be loved by their audiences. It's a tendency that can trivialize sympathetic characters, undermine disagreeable characters and, most distressingly, cause Sally Field to gush uncontrollably upon receiving an Academy Award. So it must be a relief to play a role that allows the actor to give in to this instinct: that of a performer who desperately needs love.

That is true of Hedwig, a head-banging, trash-talking drag queen who wears a blonde wig styled to look like one of Deborah Harry's early hairdos pumped up on steroids.

Kirk Lawrence plays the title character in The Firehouse Theatre Project's production of "Hedwig and the Angry Inch," and his portrayal of Hedwig's need for love shines through layers of unrestrained crudity (consider yourself warned), cutting hostility and gender-bending that bends so far it literally breaks. Hedwig is the victim of a botched sex-change operation that leaves him (or is it her?) with an agonizing identity problem.

Through a series of monologues, Hedwig describes (with a German accent) his dysfunctional childhood in East Germany, details about the operation that comes up short, and the romantic misadventures that ultimately transform him into a rock singer. With a couple of exceptions, the monologues move along at a nice clip. Lawrence even does a great job of voicing the shrill words of a snotty American boy while maintaining the German accent.

Lawrence spices up the material with local references and a number of challenges to the audience. But it takes more to provoke an audience in Richmond than it does in New York. Who can blame us? Hedwig is not exactly a familiar type in these parts. Lawrence does everything right — we just need more of a push.

Between the monologues, Hedwig and his band romp through a mix of glam, metal, punk and classic rock. There's even one song with a country flavor ("Sugar Daddy") that describes Hedwig's exile to a trailer park in Junction City, Kan. The music is fun and loud, and Lawrence can belt them out when necessary. Even if you don't buy into the story, the play works as a retro-rock show.

Musical puns and allusions are sprinkled throughout. Some are explicit (a few bars of "Stairway to Heaven" in cheesy keyboard fashion), and others are so subtle that they float away before you can quite fix on their inspirations.

Jill Bari Steinberg plays Yitzhak, Hedwig's second husband and backup singer. Her role requires heavy makeup, an enveloping costume and no dialogue. Nonetheless, she effectively communicates her character's passive-aggressive nature through body language and expressive eyes.

Director Daniel Ruth and set designer Jason Winebarger successfully create the atmosphere of a grungy nightclub. David McLain's lighting scheme is particularly impressive. There are times when the lights almost seem to push Hedwig forward into the audience. A mirror ball and strobe light finish things off nicely.

At one point, Hedwig demonstrates the difference between a heavy-metal gesture and a punk-rock gesture. It's all in the "direction of the aggression," he tells us. The same can be said of Hedwig himself. Sometimes he poignantly directs the aggression inward but more often hurls it with vengeance towards those around him. In either direction, Hedwig's anger is wickedly
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