Arrive early to the Boxcar's production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, and stay late. Director Nick Olivero has both expanded and condensed the groundbreaking rock-musical, and in all the right places. Don't worry; the mutilated genitalia that gives the show its name is still intact -- that is to say, it suffers no more slicing and dicing than the script requires.
The musical, with a book by John Cameron Mitchell and music and lyrics by Stephen Trask, follows Hedwig (née Hansel), who wants to escape his East Berlin home by marrying Luther (Reggie D. White), an American. But to get married, not only must he pretend to be female; he must also undergo a full physical exam and thus a sex-change operation. But as the song "Angry Inch" recounts, the operation goes horrifically awry: "When I woke up from the operation ... I was left with a one inch mound of flesh where my penis used to be, where my vagina never was." In other words, Hansel went "six inches forward, five inches back," and what was left made him Hedwig.
Or should we say, made them Hedwigs. 12 different performers, representing a multitude of genders, sizes, and colors, play the title role. They are Brionne Davis, Dan Clegg, Nikki Arias, Lauren Spencer, Annemaria Rajala, Valérie Fortin, Jason Brock, Nathan Marken, Megan Pryor-Lorentz, Ste Fishell, Michelle Ianiro, and Parker Sela. The choice is bold and resoundingly effective. One-by-one, Hedwigs bound onto the stage, and through sheer collective force, ennoble and empower a character who's been humiliated and brutalized not only by her country but also by the men she's loved. It's like a Pride parade for one schizophrenic person where everyone wears skin-tight red and black (the fabulous costumes are by Wes Crain), accompanied by rousing glam rock. The dodeca-casting also allows the Hedwigs to interact with each other, making each moment, particularly those in flashback, all the richer and more complex.
The Hedwigs narrate her story after the fact, in the furious songs and saucy, self-absorbed patter of her past-its-prime rock show, to which we are the audience. To that end, Olivero has structured the entire production as a blend of theater and concert. Not only is there a live four-piece band (Dave Möschler, Travis Kindred, Brendan West, Andrew Maguire); Olivero has also made the theater itself into a rock-cabaret, bringing the lobby bar inside the theater (and renaming it the "Bilgewater Bar"), setting up cabaret tables in front of the seats, and sending a bar maid (Amy Covell) around during the performance to serve drinks (and to take shit from Hedwig). The Boxcar is already an intimate space, but in this production, you're close enough to see three dimensions on the performers' eyeshadow (by makeup designer Kendra Johnson) and to appreciate the construction of the 10 platinum wigs donated by Gypsy Rosalie's Wig Shop. The performers fare swimmingly under this close scrutiny, never letting their energy flag and often making the audience a part of the show -- or giving lucky spectators a private one.
Olivero has shortened the musical itself to a swift ninety minutes, but he's also radically reconfigured the pre- and post-show so that they're vital parts of the production. DJ PDPL, a.k.a. Paul Pryor-Lorentz, spins before and after the musical, giving audience members who have hit up Bilgewater Bar something to dance to. His playlist, which includes David Bowie, the Crystals, and the Darkness, also cannily reflects, without being dictated by, Hedwig's own inspirations for her glam rock.
In short, don't be fooled by the short running time. Get there early, thirsty, ready to boogie -- and to be moved.
Hedwig and the Angry Inch continues through Jul. 8 at the Boxcar Playhouse, 505 Natoma (at Sixth St.), S.F. Admission is $25.