Separated at Mirth 

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On the same night, two local theater companies opened shows that inspired an unexpected question: Were Julie Jensen and John Cameron Mitchell separated at birth?

There is a Utah connection. Wait!’s Beaver-born author Jensen has been a playwright-in-residence at Salt Lake Acting Company; New York off-Broadway fixture Mitchell worked at the Sundance Institute to develop Hedwig and the Angry Inch into film form. But was there something more cosmic at work? How else to explain the common themes, devices and sharp wit running through both punk opera Hedwig and character drama Wait!? And how did they turn up in productions with so many of the same strengths and weaknesses?

Wait!, a world premiere commissioned by SLAC, tells the story of Wendy (Brenda Sue Cowley) through one eventful summer. A UPS truck driver and self-confessed social misfit, Wendy tries to find a place when her theater-loving friend Lu (Morgan Lund) turns an old opera house into a community theater. There Wendy performs odd jobs while keeping an eye on her alcoholic father (also played by Lund)—and an even more interested eye on the theater’s cute but vapid ingénue (Erin Hiatt).

Hedwig and the Angry Inch, meanwhile, takes us to a concert performance by the titular band, fronted by the mysteriously androgynous Hedwig (Aaron Swenson). Through songs and interstitial patter, we learn that Hedwig is essentially on a stalker tour, following around pop star Tommy Gnosis and claiming Tommy stole all Hedwig’s songs. The deeper back-story reveals how the East Berlin-born Hedwig tried to escape the communist bloc by hooking up with an American serviceman and enduring a botched sex-change operation. One divorce and another personal betrayal later, Hedwig still has some issues to work through.

She and Wendy should sit down and compare notes. In both shows, the protagonist takes us through the blossoming of same-sex attraction; in both shows, the protagonist finds a sense of empowerment through performance. Both are lonely souls with father issues, seeking an ineffable missing something. Both even relate their stories by speaking directly to the audience.

And by the way, both are tremendously entertaining—when they’re not trying to do too much. Hedwig became a stage and art- house film hit on the strength of two key ingredients: Stephen Trask’s brilliantly eclectic songs, and Mitchell’s ferocious lead performance. The songs are still there, of course, an infectious collection that runs the gamut from punk (Tear Me Down) to rockabilly twang (Sugar Daddy) to sing-along Monkees-style pop (Wig in a Box) while serving essential narrative function. But could anyone make you forget Mitchell?

Enter Aaron Swenson—John Cameron Who? Swenson’s voice turns into a stunning instrument, alternately whispering and roaring through Hedwig’s story with scary evocations of Mitchell’s phrasing. It’s a towering performance—and not just because of the platform boots.

Hedwig also asks Swenson to be a rock star, a stand-up comic and a romantic lead, which may be asking too much of anyone. The show’s one flaw is its vaudevillian eagerness to please by attempting to push every possible emotional button. Shifting between a rim shot and a climactic hug can strip the gears in any transmission.

The same niggling problem hinders Wait!, though the performances are also so strong that you might not notice. Wendy’s journey avoids many of the pitfalls of plays about the theatrical life—most notably the obligatory so-quirky-you-just-want-to-strangle-them characters—and director Kirstie Gulick Rosenfield effectively disorients us by blurring the lines between stage and life. But like in Hedwig, it’s sometimes a rough transition between broad comic relief and the tender moments. Credit Cowley, Hiatt and the riotous multiple-role performances of Lund and Annette Wright with keeping the energy flowing through the bumpy patches.

Now that I think about it, Aaron Swenson plays multiple roles in Hedwig. And both productions offer plenty of frisky, off-beat entertainment. And one of Hedwig’s central images is of a pre-human being split into complementary halves. All right—this is starting to get a little bit creepy.

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More by Scott Renshaw

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