Transgender transformation

Rory Merritt Stitt and Sara Waisanen make the quick transition from Shakespeare's 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' to John Cameron Mitchell's 'Hedwig and the Angry Inch'

Posted: Thursday, January 13, 2005

Almost five years ago, former Perseverance Theatre artistic director Peter DuBois approached Juneau singer-actor Rory Merritt Stitt with the idea of playing Hedwig, the transsexual rock star in "Hedwig and the Angry Inch."

Stitt, in the midst of releasing his debut album, "The Narcissist," thought the role "beyond what I was able to do at that time." But one more album, a couple cross-country tours and a handful of plays later, he's quite comfortable in the lead.

"Hedwig" opens at 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Jan. 14-15, at the Hangar Ballroom, and runs on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays through Feb. 13, with six midnight performances. Alcohol will be sold. Minors must be accompanied by a parent or a guardian, except to two all-ages shows, 6 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 30 and Feb. 13.

"I'm a good performer I think, and I've focused on performing a certain way. That's just with me on piano, focused in this cabaret style," Stitt said. "Hedwig crosses many genres. There's the punk songs, the rock ballad, the power ballad, the country number. I know I'm capable of singing the whole arrangement of music, but delivering the character, being a punk rocker, can I do that? Those are things that concerned me. But there's a time for everything."

Written by John Cameron Mitchell, "Hedwig" started as an off-Broadway play and quickly developed a cult following. It won the outer Critics Circle Award for Best Musical in 1998, and was adapted into a film, directed by Mitchell, in 2000. Stephen Trask wrote the music, which in many ways supersedes the text.

The plot follows Hedwig, a transsexual from East Berlin who has undergone a failed sex change operation. Most of the story is told in flashback, as a rock concert. Hedwig discusses her relationship with ex-boyfriend Tommy Gnosis, a source of consternation for Yitzhak (Sara Waisanen), Hedwig's husband and a former drag queen.

"I really wanted to do this, and I really wanted to work with Rory," Waisanen said. "My biggest challenge definitely has been trying to find my inner man-rocker, trying to move like a man and rock out like a man. I had to search my soul a little bit, but eventually I found it. It was really helpful once we had the full band."

Director David Charles Goyette has moved to Juneau and will be the new education director at Perseverance. He's spent the last three years as the associate producer at African Continuum Theatre in Washington, D.C.

"He's been very patient with us, with me discovering my man-rocker, and us all just finding the comfort zone," Waisanen said. "It's a pretty intense play, and there's a lot going on internally for both Rory and myself. I can't imagine working with a director who didn't understand that we had a lot of other things going on."

Producing director Jeffrey Herrmann assembled "The Angry Inch," the four-piece band that backs Hedwig and Yitzhak.

Local pianist and songwriter Michael Maas, whose recent work has included piano accompaniment for the Thunder Mountain Big Band, a few shorts for the J.U.M.P. film festivals and a score for the Perseverance Theatre Young Company's November presentation of "Twelfth Night," is the music director. He plays keyboards.

Sam Burrous, lead guitarist of local band Daddy-O, plays guitar. Dale McFarlin, omnipresent session musician and former drummer for now-defunct Dag Nabbit, plays drums. Longtime local bass player Simon Taylor, formerly of Peabody's Monster, plays bass.

"If the music wasn't there, I certainly wouldn't be interested in doing it," Stitt said. "Everyone involved in the music is really dynamic and powerful and tight and moving, and we're really looking at making it not just a musical, but rock 'n' roll."

"There's that chance that you could tame it down in an effort to present it in a smaller venue, but it's the music that carries it," he said. "It's the rock 'n' roll that creates the empowerment of Hedwig."

Stitt has spent most of the last few years living in Portland and touring in support of his second CD, "harlequin." He moved back to Juneau last fall to play Puck in "A Midsummer's Night Dream" and Hewdig in "Hedwig." He's currently writing new music for a live album. Part of it will be recorded at a Saturday, Feb. 26, show in Juneau, at a time and location to be announced. A few more songs will be captured in Whitehorse.

Stitt first saw "Hedwig" when it was released in the theater, then later saw a 2002 production in Portland. Coincidentally, Wade McCollum, the actor who played Hedwig in Portland, played Puck in "Midsummer" right before that.

"I met with him before coming up here, and we talked about how fun it was that that was the case," Stitt said. "He said it's amazing how they tie together, and in a way, it's true."

"There's that old archetypal trickster figure, which Puck very much is," Stitt said. "He transforms the situations with his tricks, and Hedwig is very much the same thing. She disguises herself, and by doing that you see this transformation which is the most original part of the play."

Waisanen plays Helena in "Midsummer." That character shares a few traits with Yitzhak, beyond the mere physicality of each role.

"They both start out in the play completely heartbroken for something that they want and they can't have," Waisanen said. "(Helena) wants the love of (Demetrius). Yitzhak wants to be free and to be the beautiful drag queen that he was."

"Hedwig" is opening, just as "A Midsummer Night's Dream" is closing. That creates a logistical challenge this weekend.

On Friday and Saturday, and for tonight's final preview, "Midsummer" will start at 7 p.m. and run until 9:30 p.m. From curtain down in Douglas to curtain up at the Hangar, Stitt and Waisanen will have about 90 minutes for costume changes, physical and vocal warm-up and the five-mile drive across town.

Perseverance initially wanted to cast understudies to finish Stitt and Waisanen's work in "Midsummer," but that would have meant more rehearsal time for the whole cast.

"Both of us preferred this," Waisanen said. "You grow attached to your role, and it just seemed like this would be the best decision."

Stitt may have a tough time with his costumes. Escaping Puck means taking off a series of layers and harnesses rigged to allow the character to fly. In rehearsals, it's taken him about 90 minutes to make the full transformation into the glammed-up Hedwig.

"All I can really do is be concerned about it," Stitt said. "There's only so much preparation you can do."

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