Hedwig drags into Greensboro

by Amy Kingsley

The dressing room at the Broach Theater is more like a brightly lit byway between the stage and box office than backstage proper.

From the lobby the passageway narrows, then opens into a kitchenette before depositing behind-the-scenes travelers in front of a wall-length mirror in a brightly lit room. There, on a Sunday afternoon about 45 minutes before a 2 p.m. curtain, actors James Tunstall and Christy Johnson put the finishing touches on the physical side of their characters.

Tunstall’s height, already nudging six feet, gets a boost from his costume, an ensemble of chunky-heeled boots and acid-wash denim topped with a crown of blond hair. Beside him Johnson tugs on the ends of her straight, dark hair and blunts her finely pointed jaw line with shadow.

She’s transforming from her natural state – think Southern beauty queen – into Hedwig’s Eastern European husband Yitzak. In order to pass for male, Johnson shades her aquiline features, ties her hair back with a bandanna and affixes a fake goatee to her chin.

“You have to wait between steps for the hair to dry,” she explains.

It is, in other words, a hassle.

“I’ve gotten it down to one and a half hours,” Tunstall says.

He’s referring to his makeup regimen, which starts with foundation and involves several shades of blush, eye shadow, lip gloss and liners. Tunstall’s role, the lead in Hedwig and the Angry Inch, is the first drag queen he’s portrayed during his 15-year career.

But it’s one that Tunstall describes as “the role of a lifetime.”

“Just like it’s every actress’s dream to play Mama Rose,” he said, “Hedwig is like that for me.”

What makes Hedwig so special, Tunstall says, is her complexity. The show opens with the barnburner “Tear Me Down” in which Hedwig compares herself to the Berlin Wall, a creature built by man that straddles the divide between the sexes.

Her tale begins in East Germany, where Hedwig, née Hansel, lives with his mother and subsists spiritually on the sounds of Armed Forces Radio that filter over the wall.

Hansel meets Luther, an American soldier, and consents to a sex-change operation so they can marry and move to America. The operation goes awry and Luther abandons the now genderless Hedwig, who spends what would have been their first anniversary alone, watching the Berlin Wall crumble.

The loss of her penis reminds Hedwig of a story her mother once told her, based on Aristophane’s speech in Plato’s Symposium about mythological creatures with two heads, four arms and both sets of genitalia. The gods, who fear the creatures’ power, hurl thunderbolts down to earth to tear them apart. Hedwig retells the tale in “The Origin of Love.”

Hedwig spots her other half in nerdy, Christian teenager Tommy Speck. The two begin a musical collaboration that sours, sending Speck to superstardom as Tommy Gnosis and leaving Hedwig mired in misery.

Johnson, who fronts the local band Dreamkiller, portrays Yitzhak, a former drag queen who bears the brunt of Hedwig’s tyranny.

The play has more racy moments than your average Broach fare, but Tunstall and Johnson said the response from regulars and newcomers has been positive.

“You can go just for shock value,” Tunstall says. “A man in drag can be as shocking as you make it. But that’s not what this character is about. This play is just about a human being.”

And it has spawned a cult similar to the Rocky Horror Picture Show. The Broach Theater will cater to that crowd by offering a late-night performance at 11:30 p.m. on Nov. 3. Costumed patrons will receive a discount.

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