Imagine Productions readies production of painful, shocking rock musical

Early on in their relationship, Brian Bishop-Wilkey and his now-wife bonded over, among other things, their shared fandom of rock musical “Hedwig and the Angry Inch.” The show, developed from themes from Plato's “Symposium” concerning the origin of humanity and the nature of love, found its way into the couple's wedding.

“We had elements of [‘Hedwig' song] ‘Origins of Love' and ‘Symposium' read at our wedding,” said Bishop-Wilkey, who will portray Hedwig in Imagine Productions' presentation of the play over the next two weekends at the Northland Performing Arts Center. “‘The Origin of Love' is important to the show, obviously, but it's important to me, too.”

The song is important to the show as a scene-setter. The lyrics borrow from Plato's story of early humans and how the gods split them in two, resulting in the universally human quest to reunite the two halves both physically and spiritually. Love is, the story suggests, a search for one's soulmate.

Intimate and raucous, delicate and bawdy, “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” is a rock musical in the form of a rock concert (or perhaps vice versa), its lead-character-as-lead singer carrying the audience on a journey through her darkest moments and glimpses of elation.

“Hedwig has been dealt some incredibly low blows in her life, and I think when [the show originally] came out just the level of tragedy that [writer and original Hedwig] John Cameron Mitchell was singing about was just shocking,” Bishop-Wilkey said. “As the show has entered the public sphere a little bit more, maybe the plotlines are slightly less shocking due to people just knowing about the show, but the meaning underneath and the pain that's experienced is still sometimes shocking.”

“It does still need to have that slap-in-the-face factor,” said Josh Kaplonski, who directs for Imagine Productions. This can be a challenge, considering the likelihood that audiences are not only more familiar with the show's touchpoints, but with the show itself, which debuted Off Broadway in 1998.

There might also be a broader awareness of Hedwig's genderqueer identification in the nearly 20 years since Hedwig was first performed. While the angry inch is a reference to a botched gender reassignment procedure, Mitchell has said that the character is not intended specifically as a gay or trans voice, but instead representing the “other.” Kaplonski said that broader understanding of the character who drives the show and does the lion's share of the speaking from stage necessarily informs the company's work.

“‘Hedwig' is a lot about pride [in] outsider status, about people talking about you and whether or not you should care about that,” Bishop-Wilkey said. “So there's a sense of being accepting of … people who feel outside of the mainstream in any way, really.”

In the end, Kaplonski said, “Hedwig” is “just a love story, and she's looking for love just like all of us are.”

“Hedwig is searching for most of her life for that other half, searching for completion, despite all the otherness that's given to her,” Bishop-Wilkey said. “That's a pretty universal truth, to search for completion where you might find it.”

Leanna Buker rounds out the formal cast as Yitzhak, Hedwig's assistant, bandmate and husband. While the play clearly takes a fluid approach to gender identity and norms, Buker said playing a man has meant exploring some of her mannerisms onstage, some of the adaptability in Yitzhak's personality and just “becoming comfortably crass.”

A rock stage vet as a member of Dave Buker & the Historians, Leanna Buker said “the vibe of the show is very much something I live through on a regular basis.” (Indeed, the Historians will be playing Hedwig's band, The Angry Inch, in this production.)

“It's an intimate story, but twisted in a way,” Leanna Buker said. “It's a cool feeling to put these two characters together in this really great story.”