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VPR's coverage of arts and culture in the region.

Shoebox Theatre Reprises 'Hedwig' At ArtsRiot

On an early Sunday evening, six members of Shoebox Theatre ran through the song "Tear Me Down" from the John Cameron Mitchell and Stephen Trask rock musical, Hedwig And The Angry Inch. The group is preparing for the upcoming six-night stand at ArtsRiot on Pine Street in Burlington's South End Arts District.

Actor Robert Toms plays Hedwig and Shawn Lipenski is Yitzhak. Making up backing band The Angry Inch are seasoned Vermont musicians from the folk, disco, soul, hardcore and prog rock worlds, like Antara, Chris Cheney, Adam Cooper Wood and Ornan McClean.

This performance is actually the local reprisal of Hedwig, as Shoebox staged the musical in 2004 with much of the same cast and crew.

Shoebox's origins began at 135 Pearl, the state's best-known LGBTQ bar and club which closed in 2006 and which Toms used to own.

"My concept was to have a black box theater for 135 Pearl and I always had the idea of 'open up a shoebox and use whatever you've got inside.' There was a lot of staples and duct tape. Shoebox was low-budget and just really creative."

Hedwig began as a book by John Cameron Mitchell in 1998 and then a film in 2001, which garnered a cult following.

When Mitchell joined forces with Stephen Trask, the two began working on songs and scenes for a play which they honed by performing in small clubs and theaters. The play made the jump to Broadway in 2014 and is still in production with an ever-growing cast of big stars playing the lead.

The musical follows East Berlin-born Hedwig — nee Hansel — after a botched gender reassignment surgery brings her to embody a female persona. She hits the stage to tell her life story and how her former band mate and lover stole her music through monologue and songs.

When asked for their take on the plot of Hedwig, keyboard player Adam Cooper Wood mentioned the recent rancorous climate in politics of late and said, "Hedwig is a story of acceptance and I feel like a story about acceptance is kind of apropos."

"To me, Hedwig is pretty much a journey about loving yourself," said Toms. "It's ultimately the 'us' and 'them' of it all. It's about how we fit in."

Lipenski said it's about, "self-transformation and acceptance. It's a story about a person who has to take a lot of risks. They find themself in a moment of self-awareness as the show progresses."

In a play already known for non-traditional casting, Shoebox has taken the concept further and created a performance with actors who don't fit the molds of their Broadway counterparts. Lipenski said, "It's one of the only few musical shows that could be cast genderless. Any of the roles could be cast genderless. People need to look beyond that. Really, it's about the characters and not what's under their zipper."

"I think that's the thing that's really brilliant," Toms said. "That non-traditional casting. I don't know of any other production that has a male Yitzhak. The part of Yitzhak is usually played by a female. We just chose to go in that direction."

The show, Toms said, is "cathartic." He said, "I think a lot of people do connect with that but then, it's the music! It's a rock show!"

Toms said a reviewer in Toronto saw Shoebox's performance of Hedwig and focused the musical's review on Toms' appearance. "Some people can't get past appearance. And the whole story is about accepting yourself in whatever shape and form you come in. And that to me, was really interesting. So, what is the expectation? Because, I am 220 and 6'4''. So, who says you have to have a size requirement to go through a process or become yourself in whatever shape and form you come in?"

The cast and crew are:

  • Robert Toms as  Hedwig
  • Shawn Lipenski as Yitzhak
  • Antara on guitar and vocals
  • Ornan McClean on drums
  • Chris Cheney on bass
  • Adam Cooper Wood on keyboards
  • Allan Hefferon, lighting
  • Tracy Girdich, AD
  • Rachel Capobianco, sound

For performance tickets and information about the after-show Pop-Up Pearl Dance Parties, visit ArtsRiot. A portion of the proceeds from 'Hedwig' ticket sales and the Pearl Parties will be donated to Pride VT, Vermont CARES, Outright Vermont and The Off Center For The Dramatic Arts.

Mary Williams Engisch is a local host on All Things Considered.
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