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Tranny Triumph

The Sordid Lives of Hedwig and the Angry Inch

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Did I catch a hint of Dolly Levi returning majestically from Yonkers to the chi-chi Harmonia Gardens Restaurant? Or was that the crazed, cadaverous Norma Desmond, ready for her close-up?

Whatever it was, when long-suffering transvestite Brother Boy returns to Winter, Texas, for his mama's funeral, it's an entrance that fulfills its high expectations. The new Queen City Theatre Company has found a dream queen in Hank West, and his exploits in Sordid Lives are reason enough for all fanciers of Texas trash to make pilgrimage to Spirit Square.

West is more hideous than even Tammy Faye in deathless dialogue with Larry King -- and far, far funnier.

Even in the mental institution before his liberation, Brother Boy sports a toilette of Tammy Faye proportions, including the Olympian eyelashes. West's "dehomosexualiztion" therapy in the office of predatory Dr. Eve Bolinger -- with newcomer Carley Howard transitioning from tightly wound prude to voracious voluptuary -- is a sight to savor.

Reaching that point in the evening, just after intermission, involves a sprinkling of hard labor for the audience. QCTC artistic director Glenn T. Griffin deftly navigates Del Shores' sometimes turgid, sometimes hackneyed script. He just hasn't quite managed to recruit a full cast to animate his vision.

Jennifer Grant dragged the tempo as neurotic Sissy Hickey, vainly trying to quit smoking in the wake of her sister Peggy's indecorous death -- and trying to keep peace in the opening scene between Peggy's daughters, free-spirited Noleta and the pathologically proper Latrelle. Griffin gets a nicely desiccated performance from Bogey Wingfield as Latrelle, and Jennifer Quigley as Noleta reminds us how winsome she can be when she isn't miscast.

Diana Kinney puts a different kind of damper on the next chapter as Juanita Bartlett, the late Peggy's dèclassè confidant. We do understand that you need to sink rather low to be looked down upon by Shores' lowlifes. Still, perpetually sloshed need not mean unintelligible. Loud would work better.

Again we take solace in the other performers at Bubba's Bar, where we get particulars of Brother Boy's homophobic commitment and meet the crippled G.W., tragically involved in Peggy's demise. G.W. ought to be a funnier character, but Gray Rikard cannot repair what Shores fails to accomplish. Steve Sherrill has far better success with the ruefulness of barkeep Wardell Owens, object of Brother Boy's careless love and instrument of his downfall.

Wardell acts on his regrets, which makes him a better man than Latrelle's gay son, Ty. Speaking to us from New York, where he's a soap star, the handsome actor has all the right attitudes -- particularly about his wasted uncle -- but never acts on them. Josh Looney makes Ty the most agreeable of narrators, but I still wish Shores had sent him to give Dr. Eve a dose of her own medicine.

All is purified -- even Shores' callousness -- when West appears all glammed as Brother Boy at the ignominious funeral. There is genuine Hello, Dolly joy in his triumph, yet that silent wisp of Gloria Swanson keeps us mindful of the irredeemable price that the flamboyant Brother Boy has paid.

Of course, some fine costume and wig design by Stuart Williams help the cause. Some of that wig design (actually, Williams with Gypsy Starr) also heap distinction on Grant and Kinney. Set design, by the QCTC leadership team of Griffin, Williams, and Kristian Wedolowki, adds a classy patina to an unabashedly trashy package.

Remember, no less a queen than Miss Coco Peru put her imprimatur on this enterprise at a March 31 fundraiser. This maiden voyage proves that QCTC is worthy.

 

Billy Ensley, twice the anti-hero of Hedwig and the Angry Inch at Actor's Theatre, has moved to the background, directing the third incarnation. In Ensley's place, Scott Ripley plays the ornery victim of a botched sex-change operation, a fascinating shift from the East German he brought us last summer in I Am My Own Wife.

Ripley is a distinctively angrier Hedwig than Ensley, that's for sure. Strip away the wisps of charm that Ensley bestowed on the transsexual rocker and there's more for his backup band -- named after Hedwig's puny pee-pee -- to be angry about. We also get a different shading on Hedwig's mystic bond with turncoat protègè Tommy Gnosis.

In keeping with Ripley's more saturnine disposition as Hedwig, there's a darker tinge to his musicianship -- and a surprisingly stronger voice. Christy Johnson is a stronger, less sympathetic Yitzhak than we've seen before. But that's exactly the right path to take, given Ripley's new slant. She's also more powerful vocally, with a far better makeup job.

If Ripley really needs something to be angry about, I'd point to that blonde wig he wears -- a hand-me-down from Ensley, I bet. Cheapskates!

So you're a little hazy on what Michael Simmons means by "experiential theatre"? Carolina Actors Studio Theatre's presentation of Autobahn can sweep away your confusion as efficiently as a new set of windshield wipers. Enter the lobby and you gaze into the ticket booth through a monster truck tire. Your tickets are designed like traffic citations, and the bios in your program booklet have an uncanny resemblance to your driver's license. Bad head-shot included.

Need to tinkle? There are dashboard mirrors strategically placed in the restrooms.

Surely you will enter CAST's black boxagon amply primed for an intensely automotive immersion. Actors, actresses, and a team of four directors don't steer you wrong, either, navigating through Neil LaBute's suite of seven vignettes, all confined to the front seat of a car. Video filmed in metro Charlotte, projected on four screens, keeps us in motion as the scenes unfold, and the little playlet that precedes the action -- "The Magic and the Mercury" by Rolin Jones -- is an inspired choice.

But Jones's existential colloquy between two possums (Glenn Hutchinson and Joshua Ryan) upstages more than one of LaBute's sketches, which need more friction to spark and leaner dialogue. Four of the seven are actually monologues. After Leslie Beckham's riff on her newfound honesty as the de-toxed daughter in "Funny," the monologues tilt downhill. Edgier are the give-and-take of Jonovan Adams and Tamara Stephenson as boyfriend and girlfriend in "Bench Seat" or John Xenakis and Karina Roberts-Caporino as driver's ed teacher and captive student in "Road Trip."

Most satisfying of all was the gradual unwinding of "Merge," with Tom Olson as a husband learning how far his wife, played by Beth Pesakoff, has strayed from sobriety and propriety on a recent business trip.

So a few potholes in the script, smoothed over with some luxury cruise control from an awesome CAST production team.

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