Friday, November 28, 2014

Wig in a Box

One day you meet a witty bartender and the next thing you know, he's a transgender woman. Or, playing one anyway.

Once upon a time in Richmond, back in the days before Heritage's world domination, I was a regular at Six Burner, the restaurant that preceded it. It was there that I met a new bartender, hit it off with him and spent the evening gabbing about life, theater and music.

He made sure I knew about the new event he'd started, the monthly Ghost Light afterparty at Richmond Triangle Players. I went a few weeks later and got to see my new bartender friend in his rightful place, a stage. Matt Shofner played host and frequent performer that night and I became his unabashed fan.

Only years of those Sunday nights listening to Matt's incredible voice and watching his non-stop showmanship could have prepared me for TheatreLab's production of "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" that I saw tonight.

I'd been dying to see the inside of TheaterLab's new space, dubbed The Basement because it is, conveniently for me located in Jackson Ward.

Down the stairs I've passed so many times I went, only to find the subterranean DIY space that is evolving into their permanent performance home, learning that it was formerly a shoe store and a speakeasy, somehow appropriate both of them.

As further proof that we weren't in Kansas anymore, this was not your granny's program. It warned us to pee beforehand (no intermission), that strobe lights would be used because they're awesome and that the band was going to be l-o-u-d. I was okay with all of that.

Saying hello to artistic director Deejay Gray - looking very '70s in his desert boots - he welcomed me warmly and instructed me to "sit close so Hedwig can see you." As someone who likes to see the actors spit, he didn't have to tell me twice.

I found a single seat in the second row center, only to have a tall guy sit down in front of me. Fortunately, he was a sloucher.

"Ladies and gentlemen, whether you like it or not...Hedwig!" was a cue for the incredibly tight four piece band (appropriately bedazzled in makeup and glitter) to begin playing "America the Beautiful" as Matt strutted out in a cape, denim dress, torn fishnets and high-heeled boots.

He had some pretty impressive moves considering his heel height, that's all I'm going to say. Meanwhile, Hedwig said things like, "I do love a warm hand on my entrance."

Using song and monologue, he told the story of his life growing up in East Berlin, listening to the American music of the time  - Tony Tennille, Anne Murray - on Armed Forces Radio. At one point, he stood with his leg on either side of the guy in front of me, gyrating his hips and grinding his leopard-print shorts into his face.

You see, beneath that leopard print was Hedwig's greatest disappointment: the inch of flesh left after a botched sex change operation. Hence the band name, the Angry Inch.

The play has a great score and "Origin of Love" is the best musical explanation of predestined soul mates as any I've heard. The rousing "Sugar Daddy" was instantly familiar since Matt and crew always sing that at GLAP when the hat gets passed for the pianist, although I hadn't known it was from this.

Local references abounded in the script - Hedwig was supposedly starting her tour at The Basement, her ex-lover was playing that night at Richmond Coliseum - but the best one came after a raucous number.

"I think we finally found our single," Hedwig says of the kick ass song they'd just done.

Meanwhile, he's got a Hardywood Singel in the palm of his hand and is counting 1, 2,3, 4 under his breath as he displays it. "These things don't pay for themselves," he cracked, referring to Hardywood Craft Brewery's sponsorship of "Hedwig."

As if that wasn't funny enough, Hedwig also explained what he was doing for a living in his trailer. "I lost my job at the PX and lost my gag reflex, You do the math." Done.

Because of when the play took place, namely before and after the Berlin Wall came down, there were tons of '70s and '80s references and several times, I found myself one of the very few who laughed out loud at them, no doubt a result of a young Friday night audience.

"His face might have been a Yes cover, it was so still," he deadpanned and my laugh was the only one in the room. Come on, that's hilarious...if you knew the band Yes.

The only other actor in the show was Bianca Bryan and there were times I was riveted by her performance, usually over on the far side of the stage, no matter what Matt was doing. She was an ideal foil for him, both musically and in terms of her character.

Director Maggie Roop - Matt's longtime friend and original fan - deserves a round of applause herself for putting together a top-notch production theater lovers will be talking about for some time to come.

By the time we got to the climax, it had been 90 non-stop minutes of rock and roll, Matt Shofner's mega-talent and a story that reminds us that sometimes you don't realize who your soul mate is.

Best of all, it played out in a basement in my neighborhood, christening the new space in the most impressive and irreverent way. Six Burner, I owe you.

There's a lesson here: don't stop going to bars. Look at the talent I meet. You do the math.


  1. ..saw Yes at Duke in '72, [... been walking the planet a while.. it happens if u live long enough]...try to avoid cheap wine, dizzy broads & pretentious rock 'n rollers. granted Hedwig does have a sense of humor & a lot of least in the cinema version. U do the math? does that go with losing ones' gag reflex? Ok ...maybe that's our soul mate 'round the corner...


  2. i'm not laughing.


  3. wait...let me run & get the glue!


  4. Ha! You wouldn't read me if I was a dizzy broad who liked cheap wine and pretentious rockers. Thanks for sticking around...

  5. ...maybe a riesling tonight?


  6. So great seeing you last night! Loved your post about it too!! Glad you enjoyed it!
    Love, Deejay Gray" xoxo

  7. My absolute favorite was in the house last night. Love you, Karen!