CENTRAL CASTING

A hard man-woman is good to find

by Nobuko Tanaka

Casting is all in “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” but here all’s very well indeed.

The actor in the title role must sing 11 numbers and MC what’s effectively a two-hour, nonstop, one-man glam-rock play, making his performance absolutely crucial to “Hedwig’s” success. Luckily at Parco Theater, Shibuya, popular thirtysomething TV and movie character actor Hiroshi Mikami turns in a tour de force as the hero, a New York drag queen rock singer left with a 1-inch penis after his sex-change operation went wrong.

As anyone who saw creator John Cameron Mitchell’s scintillatingly camp and melancholy Hedwig in the cult-hit 2001 movie will know, that’s no small achievement.

First staged in a tiny New York livehouse in 1994 before moving off-Broadway, this “rock’ n’ roll fairy tale” — as writer/director/star Mitchell described it — was the talk of the town, with maniac repeaters who called themselves “Hed Heads” donning Hedwig-style locks and becoming a show in themselves. David Bowie even reportedly brushed off the Grammies to attend a show.

And all that was before the movie, which opened in Japan in 2002 and became a word-of-mouth hit, made Mitchell synonymous worldwide with his partly autobiographical title role.

Now, though, in the heart of Shibuya, Mikami makes Hedwig his own, too, from the moment he appears through the auditorium and breaks into “Tear Me Down” (written, like all the show’s songs, by Stephen Trask) as the onstage live band blitzes the audience.

We are spirited away into Hedwig’s world, his bedroom and sitting room cozily arranged either side of a central runway on which most of the action takes place. The band is at the back, playing in what looks like a small sweaty basement club.

As Mikami’s powerful low voice tells much of the story in song — from slow ballads to driving punk — it’s sometimes hard to remember, under the sparkling glints of a giant mirror-ball, that this is theater, not a concert. Through these numbers, Hedwig’s monologues, and animations and stills projected on the brick-wall backdrop, we learn about Hedwig’s checkered life.

His story begins in East Berlin in the 1960s, with a father who was sexually abusing him being kicked out by his mother when Hedwig was still a toddler. After that, Hedwig lives contentedly with his mother, sleeping together platonically in the same bed in a small, grim apartment, listening to Bowie, Iggy Pop and Lou Reed. That state of affairs continues until Hedwig, in his early 20s, meets a U.S. soldier and becomes the man’s toy boy.

It’s at his lover’s behest that Hedwig has his horribly botched operation and moves with him to small-town America as his spouse. When the soldier abandons him soon after, though, Hedwig uses his newfound freedom to do all the things he likes best: being a glam-rock singer/songwriter, a baby sitter — and a prostitute.

It’s then, as his 30s loom, that Hedwig’s life is transformed yet again when he meets and falls in love with 17-year-old Tommy, older brother of one of his baby-sitting charges. Hedwig fosters the teenager’s ambition to be a singer and, sure enough, Tommy’s talents bloom. But then, far from being the kindred spirit Hedwig had long sought and thought he’d found, Tommy dumps his mentor and lover and rises to rock stardom — taking with him the songs Hedwig wrote for him.

In this fairy tale — in which the climax is as triumphant as it is unexpected — certain words and phrases stand out as keys with which to unlock the fable, among them “rock star,” “America, the illusion-of-freedom country” and “Plato’s myth of the origin of love” (which has it that we are separated at birth from our other half, and spend life thereafter striving to reunite).

However, Mikami, whose charismatic, tough-minded Hedwig brings to mind Johnny Depp, has said the whole story could merely be Hedwig’s fantasy — a fantasy, he says, that a staged version still has the freedom to explore, unlike the fixed-in-celluloid film version.

Whichever way you take it, though, this show — with an accomplished and sensitive translation by Yoji Aoi, and sterling support from the Angry Inch Band (Japanese musicians who’ve worked before with Mikami) — is not to be missed. And, of course, Mikami is the crucial factor. A poet and experimental dramatist of genius, his return to live theater after a 16-year break — here and in Shuji Terayama’s “Duke Bluebeard’s Castle” (see The Japan Times, 2 April, 2003) — is a cause for rejoicing.

“Hedwig and the Angry Inch” runs till June 6 at Parco Theater in Shibuya, a 5-minute walk from JR Shibuya Station. The production then tours to Osaka, Sendai, Niigata and Nagoya till June 21, with final performances in Shinjuku, June 23-24. For more details, call Parco Theater at (03) 3477-5858 or see www.parco-city.co.jp/play/

That casting is crucial to any play is highlighted again at Setagaya Public Theatre in Sangenjaya, where its enfant terrible company Theatre Tram is tackling Harold Pinter’s 1960s absurdist masterpiece “The Dumb Waiter” by staging the hourlong, two-man production twice a night with different casts.

With fantasy, futility and paranoia at its core, “The Dumb Waiter” concerns Ben and Gus, who spend their time kicking their heels in a drab hotel room in the dingy industrial city of Birmingham in the Midlands of England.

From their petty conversation we come to understand that they are hired killers who have worked together for years despite their grating temperaments. And they can’t leave the room because they are waiting for the phone to ring and their boss to tell them their next hit.

Then suddenly a dumb waiter in the wall delivers a note with a food order written on it. Then it does the same again and again. Neither man has any idea who is sending the orders, or why — and this mystery becomes the whole focus of their talk, which degenerates into arguments and fearful paranoia.

Tram presents this neat and short play twice in one night, with two teams of actors directed by two Suzukis.

One, called the A Version in the program — Tram have dubbed it the “flash men’s version” — is directed by Yumi Suzuki, founder of the Jitensha Kinkreet Theatre Company, and acted by Shinichi Tsutsumi (Ben) and Jun Murakami (Gus), who are both good-looking and in their 20s.

Meanwhile, the B Version, dubbed the ojin (middle-aged men’s) version, is directed by Katsuhide Suzuki — who is also well-known as a movie scripwriter and rock-show art director — and is acted by middle-aged Kazuyuki Asano (Ben) and Katsumi Takahashi (Gus).

During rehearsals, neither team knew anything of what the other was doing — and it’s surely because of that that the result is so interesting. Put simply, these seem to be completely different plays.

In the A Version, Yumi’s direction sticks faithfully to Pinter’s original. This results, though, in a jarring staging. Many references are unfamiliar to a Japanese audience, or simply dated. The actors added to the confusion by portraying their characters as clean-cut types it was impossible to imagine as hired killers.

In the B Version, by powerful contrast, Katsuhide used a simplified, monotone set, heavy on plastic and metal. In doing so he creating a “nowhere, nowhen” setting for what became a study of the eternally inane elements of human relationships. There was nothing prissy here — instead we got a hard-boiled male drama that reminded me of Guy Ritchie’s gangster movies. Both actors were excellent, especially Asano’s shifty Ben.

The B Version translation, too, with its looser paraphrasing, was more to my taste. Others, though, may lean toward the orthodox A Version. Get down to Sangenjaya to compare for yourself — this doubling up makes for a singular theatrical experience.