Being Hedwig

A transgender icon returns to Spokane, played by a straight guy.

Being Hedwig
Young Kwak
Simons as Hedwig

In the unsparing light of a bare fluorescent tube, Dylan Simons stretches his fingers out in front of his face, examining his nails.

He has just finished painting his pinky, ring, and index fingers black in the back office of Aclub, the downtown Spokane rock venue. Satisfied, he switches bottles and begins painting his middle finger a glossy pink. Not bubblegum pink. Something a little redder. Sexier. Not as red as the three-inch heels of the combat boots he’s wearing, though. Those are too red.

“I wanted to paint those pink, too, but I haven’t had time,” he says.

Simons, 27, has just finished with an hour and a half in the makeup chair at Glen Dow Academy, where he has been given smoky eyes and an understated pinkish lip gloss that complements his complexion.

As he paints, a tattoo of the Sacred Heart peaks through a fringed keyhole at the chest of the halter dress he’s wearing.

He sets the brush down and picks at his finger. This weekend, Simons, a line cook by day, will play Hedwig Robinson, the title character and deliverer of 95 percent of the lines in a production of John Cameron Mitchell’s 1998 play, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, at Aclub. It will be his second time in the role. He was cast in Tessa Gregory’s 2007 production at the now-defunct Fat Tuesdays, not long after he moved to Spokane.

It’s Simons’ first time fully behind the wheel, though — “Producing, directing, and honestly just about everything ... all the promotion” — and so he finds himself preoccupied with a lot of little niggling details he couldn’t have imagined before now.

He returns to the painting but quickly gives up. “I’m getting nail polish all over my damn hands,” he says. And time is short.

With two weeks to the opening, tonight is the first real dress rehearsal, with the full band and Yitzhak, the only other character with lines (played by Kristen Black), all in one place.

Simons stands, waves his nails around to dry, then reaches for a plastic grocery bag, pulling it off a stand to reveal a blond, pink and black wig. “I better get this thing on,” he says.

"Long story short,” sing/speaks Hedwig Robinson in “Angry Inch,” the song that describes his botched gender reassignment, “... two days later the hole closed up, the wound healed and I was left with a one-inch mound of flesh / where my penis used to be / where my vagina never was / it was a one-inch mound of flesh.”

This passage is the most dissonant in what is generally a melodic, almost poppy soundtrack, with soft rock, ’70s glam and even a rollicking Western swing tune called “Sugar Daddy,” about Hedwig’s deflowering at the hands of an American GI who tempts him with American gummi bears (which are much more flavorful than their colorless communist counterparts).

The story centers on a young gay man from East Germany who is convinced by his American lover to have a sex change in order to escape communism and flee west. The GI dumps him in Kansas, though, and the man, now called Hedwig, begins playing music as a form of therapy, and autobiography. He meets a young “pock-marked, Dungeons and Dragons-obsessed Jesus freak,” named Tommy, who he takes to be his soul mate. Tommy, though, steals the songs they write together and becomes a national (straight) heartthrob.

Hedwig forms his own band and chases after Tommy’s tour bus.

Most of this is only revealed in Hedwig’s reminiscences. The play itself is an extended concert with monologues. Metaphorically, it is an attempt to surgically reattach severed pieces of self.

It was the punk dissonance in the story that attracted a young Dylan Simons when he first saw the film in high school: “Just the rawness of it.”

Simons adopts that rage for most of the practice, spending his time wide-legged, pelvis out, screaming into the microphone.

Quite unladylike.

He was in Anchorage, Alaska, in 2001, visiting his father over Christmas. He lived the rest of the year with his mom in Aberdeen, Wash. Though he’s a straight man and therefore, in his mind, unqualified to speak to the specific troubles of gay people and lesbians and the transgendered, he says the feeling of being severed from vital parts of the self can connect with basically anyone.

Simons stops short of saying he feels severed, partially out of an unwillingness to put his own issues on par with the persecution and identity battles of gays, lesbians and the transgendered.

“I’ve endured certain hardships,” he says, “but I’d feel bad if I asked anyone to cry over them.”

Still, the fact that Hedwig resonated as deeply with a straight kid from a broken home in Aberdeen as it did with the LBGT community in New York when it premiered proves that Hedwig is a story about people, not groups.

Simons has the high cheekbones and drowsy eyes of a Hollywood ingénue. Especially with the smoky eye shadow. He also, though, has the shoulders of a tight end and the nose of a prizefighter.

His Hedwig is quite thin but built more solidly than John Cameron Mitchell, the originator of the role and the man against whom all Hedwigs are judged.

Though wiry and generally graceful, in costume for the first time, Simons has a difficult time negotiating a stage full of microphone cords in a calf-length wrap skirt and those three-inch heeled combat boots. Well, three-inch

heels and “a one-inch platform.”

His blond, pink and leopard-print bangs, fringed to the clavicle, seem to be getting into his eyes.

These are the things he’ll have to get used to.

His voice carries the mid-range well and is capable, on occasion, of real warmth. He’s meaner than John Cameron Mitchell, who vamps around stage and screen, only really exploding with anger twice, once in the retelling of his botched vagina-making surgery and once after realizing he isn’t going to find his other half in a person, but within himself.

Simons adopts that rage for most of the practice, spending his time wide-legged, pelvis out, screaming into the microphone. Quite unladylike. More Patti Smith than Debbie Harry. John Cameron Mitchell drew from David Bowie. Simons seems to have drawn from Glenn Danzig. (He has a Misfits logo tattooed on his left calf.)

“[Hedwig has] been shit upon his whole life but turns it around and makes something out of it,” Simons says, “It’s a sort of bravery that I admire.”

Listening through 30 minutes’ worth of songs before the band members go to their respective jobs and homes, it’s clear: The lines are all still Mitchell’s. The attitude, and the emphasis on punk rock discord, though, is all Simons. 

Hedwig and the Angry Inch • Thurs, March 31 - Sat, April 2, 8 pm • Aclub • 416 W. Sprague • $12; $15, at the door • • 624-3629