Helga, meet Hedwig. Hedwig, meet Helga.
Hedwig is an imaginary character -- a person of indeterminate gender from East Germany transplanted to a Kansas trailer park and put to lean, ludicrous, lascivious flesh and wit by the gifted actor/singer John Cameron Mitchell.
Helga was the real McCoy.
Hedwig and the Angry Inch is a naughty, funny "glam-punk" rock musical that's been selling out various downtown venues for the past couple of years and is now packing them into a Jane Street Theatre newly created in the one-time ballroom of a wonderful old-time seaman's hotel, the Riverview.
The show's spoken words are by 34-year-old Mitchell; its music and lyrics are by 32-year-old Stephen Trask. Both are onstage for the full 90 minutes, Trask at the keyboard, Mitchell as star, along with a menacing man in a moustache out of Brecht-Weill (who turns out to be a laughing girl named Miriam Shor) plus three instrumentalists of a four-man band (with Trask) called Cheater: Scott Bilbrey, David McKinley, Chris Weilding.
John Cameron Mitchell first met Stephen Trask on a plane bound from Los Angeles to New York in 1989. "He said he had a band. I said I was an actor." "John and I became friends," said Stephen Trask before a Hedwig performance one recent afternoon, "and he came to me with an idea for a show about duality. I was at the time playing at a SoHo club called Squeezebox. His idea also had to do with Plato's Symposium, and in discussions of that, John happened to tell me about someone he'd known, a divorcee from Germany named Helga."
Mitchell, getting ready to apply the evening's make-up and wig, picked up the narrative. "She'd been one of that breed of Army wives who'd married [an American] just to get out of where they were, Germany, and now she was living in a trailer in Junction City, Kansas, while working for my family as a housekeeper. She was also, we subsequently discovered, turning tricks in the trailer. Unlike Hedwig in the show, she was not a transvestite."
Army brat Mitchell, born in El Paso, Texas, was raised everywhere. His father, Gen. John H. Mitchell, had been commander of the U.S. sector of West Berlin just before the Wall came down; his mother is the painter Joan Cameron Mitchell.
Stephen Trask, the son of Robert and Myrna Schwartz, was born in New London, Conn. His mother's a therapist. His sign-maker father made the Hedwig display -- "and the banner blowing in the wind" -- atop the entrance of the Riverview.
"That Squeezebox seemed the perfect environment to start workshopping this Hedwig character," said Trask. "She was instantly popular. Demands to see more of her forced us to create a whole show."
"We developed it gig by gig," said Mitchell. "Every six months or so, at one rock club or another. I see you jotted on your program the joke about the fur coat."
The joke has Hedwig, in the rattiest schmata of all time, being assaulted by a fur fascist, who screams: "What poor unfortunate creature had to die for you to wear that?" "My Aunt Trudy," Hedwig shoots back.
"My mom gave me that gag," said John Cameron Mitchell.
-- By Jerry Tallmer