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Loraine O'Donnell Becomes Hedwig

Loraine O'Donnell transformed. (photos by Michael Walline)

ALT Theatre presents Hedwig and the Angry Inch

Loraine O’Donnell has long been a fan of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, the story of an East German “girly boy” named Hansel, who falls in love with an American soldier. Marriage to an American would mean escape from the communist bloc, but freedom comes at a price. By law, the couple must be man and woman, and so, urged by his mother, Hansel has a sex change, becomes Hedwig, and, as Mrs. Luther Robinson, leaves for Kansas.

The torrid tale is told by Hedwig herself, who speaks directly to the audience as she performs with her rock band.

We learn that all did not go according to Hedwig’s plan. Her surgery is a botched disaster; her new vagina heals closed, leaving her with an angry one-inch mound of useless flesh between her legs—and a title for her show. To add insult to surgery, on the day of her first wedding anniversary to Luther, he leaves her for a man, and on the very same day, Hedwig sits in their trailer park home and watches the announcement that the Berlin Wall has come down.

Written and originally performed by John Cameron Mitchell with Steven Trask, the show opened off-Broadway in 1998 and was a smash hit. The show has been performed all over the world, except, it seems in Buffalo, and was made into a film in 2000, adapted, directed by, and starring John Cameron Mitchell.

As the exposition suggests, the sex of the actor who portrays Hedwig is less important than the ability to deliver the monologue and sell the rock tunes. Ally Sheedy was among Mitchell’s off-Broadway successors, as were a litany of other performers.

“Some people have tried to say that I’m all wrong for the part,” says a bemused O’Donnell. “They’ve said it needs to be a man, but John Cameron Mitchell himself chose Ally Sheedy to play the part. They’ve said I’m too old, but in reality, I am a year younger than the character because the play is supposed to take place in real time. There is even a portion of the script where I am supposed to refer to my actual location. The only change I wanted to make was to be slim enough to be convincing as a former ‘slip of a girly boy.’”

O’Donnell determined that she would lose 50 pounds to play the role. Given the time frame, her personal trainer, Daniel Sheff, adjusted that plan in a hurry. Thirty pounds seemed more realistic and safer. She has lost 35, while building muscle tone.

“My trainer was insistent that you don’t just drop weight like that,” says O’Donnell. “He hates that show, The Biggest Loser, because that kind of sudden weight lose can be dangerous. I have undertaken a health regimen with better eating and exercise. Years ago I would have thought, ‘Lose a pound a week! Why bother?’ Now I understand that a pound a week would be 52 pounds in just a year. It took a lot longer to put the weight on.”

O’Donnell’s fitness odyssey can be viewed on Facebook. She looks marvelous and she’s never felt better in her life.

“For the first time,” she says, “I’m sleeping well. I always used to wake repeatedly in the night. I feel terrific!”

While Hedwig is no longer a new piece, its story of individuality, marriage equality, transgender experience, and the right to live one’s own life clearly resonates today. Its message has certainly stayed with O’Donnell all these years.

“When I first went to New York in the ’80s,” she recalls, “I was heavily into the whole punk rock scene, with my hair dyed bright red and the sides shaved. I sang with rock bands. I was going to school for musical theater, but I was listening to Patti Smith and Iggy Pop. This show incorporates everything I lived—including stand-up comedy. I was just a huge fan of Hedwig from the beginning.

“A large part of that,” she continues, “is that I love the Hedwig character. She never bemoans that she is living as a woman. She is never bitter. She just lives her life and forges ahead. She’s very philosophical and you admire her. I love that. There is a major theme of finding your other half, whatever your gender might be, which I know speaks to many people.”

Hedwig sings “The Origin of Love,” which retells Plato’s story of “The Symposium,” of how there used to be three sexes, made of couples joined together: male-male; female-female; and male-female. The gods separated the uppity humans and we’ve been searching for our other halves ever since. Hedwig believes that her own soulmate is Tommy, the once shy Christian boy she turned into a rock star, who ran off for fame with the songs she wrote. She has determined either to get him back or to destroy him—not that she’s bitter…

“She’s such a real person!” says O’Donnell with a laugh. “People who have never seen the show will be moved, and for that reason, I am determined to play her as a real person, no some cartoon, not some over-the-top cliché. Hedwig is real, and there is some Hedwig in all of us.”

Directed by Michael Walline, Hedwig and the Angry Inch also features Kerrykate Abel and Billy Horn’s band Billy Draws Two. The show will run Thursdays through Saturdays at 8pm, with late-night Saturday shows at 10:30pm. Hedwig and Friends, an open-mike music concert, will take place at 10:30pm on the last three Fridays of the run. The production begins performances on January 6 at ALT Theatre in the Great Arrow Building, 255 Great Arrow Avenue. Call 868-6847 for further information, or visit to view fab photos by Michael Walline.