Opening Nights

Hedwig and The Angry Inch

Re-bar; ends Sat., July 31

What a difference three years makes. If you caught Nick Garrison as the transgendered East Berlin rock phenom in Re-bar's rousing original production in the fall of 2000, don't assume you've already seen everything he has to give—since then, he's had an award-winning Chicago turn in the role, and enough time in Hedwig's heels to know her heart. If you've never seen him, the moments you're using reading this are better spent trying to get tickets.

John Cameron Mitchell's heroine, who unloads the woes of a botched sex-change operation during a gig with her backup band of surly expatriates, is a cult icon these days, having already conquered the silver screen. Garrison is back playing to a devoted crowd that not only worships his considerable gifts, but also venerates material it now knows by heart. As a result, the first quarter or so of this production feels like it's locked in a fight with our preconceptions, and trying to laugh itself out of the quandary. Garrison leans into his disarming comic ability to mine several insidious punch lines from even the smallest joke; you sense that he and Imogen Love, his sometime co-star (Deflowered in the Attic) and here director, must have amused the hell out of each other in rehearsal.

Fortunately, Love's staging digs deeper into the piece's dark chill and abiding warmth, led by the fairly nuclear, lived-in luminousness that Garrison is bringing to the lead. His cries for understanding are no joke, and his handling of Stephen Trask's wounded, triumphant songs has a clarity of purpose that makes even Garrison's last magnificent go-around with them seem like a warm-up: He's more proficient with their storytelling and exquisitely personal with their embattled, rhapsodic emotion; the climactic "Midnight Radio" now sounds utterly his.

As Yitzak, Hedwig's hounded hubby, the resourceful Bhama Roget doesn't have the robust vocal prowess of the earlier production's invaluable Sarah Rudinoff (who's busy in the Empty Space's Ubu), but she has something Rudinoff didn't— a sinuous, supple sexuality she uses to connect with Garrison's own and give the show's all-encompassing emancipation further resonance.

The collective energies here are transporting—the band is a powerhouse, and even A.J. Epstein's detailed lighting seems to be working your spine—until the sweaty, stimulating, glitzkrieg of a show resembles some kind of communal lovefest. At its dizzy heights, it makes you happy to be alive and ecstatic to be in the dazzled, jubilant company of other people feeling the exact same thing. STEVE WIECKING

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

Theater Schmeater; ends Sat., June 19

Two words: Jack Nicholson. Of all the blowsy roles that King Smirk has utterly owned in his career, perhaps none has he so territorially pissed upon as the not-so-nuts R.P. McMurphy in Milos Forman's 1975 film version of Cuckoo's Nest. It seems a stacked comparison to begin with, but really, that's what any stage version of Ken Kesey's anti­establishmentarian novel about an uninsane man trapped in an insane asylum is up against: Everyone in the audience knows Nicholson; it's all we're thinking about. The trick is to bring something new to the game, to push a finger on the outsized bubble of McMurphy's charisma and see if something pops out somewhere else—something interesting, revealing.

If anyone is up to the task, it's the folks at Theater Schmeater, who consistently stage engaging and intelligent middlebrow stuff that often flies in the face of dramatic orthodoxy. Yet their current Cuckoo's Nest is pretty risk-free, which is not to say the show is a dud. This is the sort of play that sets actors a-drooling—stocked as it is with juicy loonies, good goodies, and really bad baddies—and the performances here are duly strong, especially Brandon Whitehead as that mincing nebbish Dale Harding. Marty Mukhalian also brings a fresh twist to the totally abhorrent Nurse Ratched, transforming Louise Fletcher's vicious bull dyke of the film into a sort of passive- aggressive Wicked Witch of the West with a clipboard. And McMurphy? MJ Sieber does a commendable job with a tough role, and there are moments when he avoids Nicholson's over-the-top bravado, stripping the role of its Hollywood trappings in favor of a more homespun, blue-collar earthiness. Whenever things get chaotic, though, Sieber seems to fall back on this irrepressible shtick—no sin, all things considered.

In fact, it hardly seems anyone in particular is to blame for the fact that, despite the obvious strengths of this production, it comes across as oddly unaffecting. Perhaps Kesey's story, which wears its moral like a giant bull's-eye, has lost some of its original zing. Maybe it's time, à la Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern–revisioning of Hamlet, to defamiliarize the all-too-familiar by assuming a different perspective, perhaps that of the stuttering Billy Bibbit, or even Nurse Ratched: One Flew Into the Cuckoo's Nest? RICHARD MORIN

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