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Aaron Swenson hasn't been able to sleep most nights, ever since he began rehearsing the role of Hedwig Schmidt, the transsexual East German rocker and namesake of "Hedwig and the Angry Inch."
"I stare at the walls, running the lines over in my head," he said. "Then I spiral down into self-loathing just in time to go to sleep."
But if he can't sleep but three hours at a time, he still can talk. A lot. After all, when he's not talking about the role of a lifetime, he's writing about it.
"I have bruises on my ribs from wearing a bra and two shapers over three or four pairs of tights," Swenson writes on a blog on the Plan-B Theatre Company's website. "My deteriorating sanity is essential to my process. I would not give it up for the world."
As a performer in the age of social media, Swenson kicked up the transformational effort a notch by launching a Twitter feed in February. "Guten tag and hallo, all you perverts and nobodies!" he wrote.
By the time the show opens June 8 at Park City's Egyptian Theatre, Swenson will have been channeling his character in tweets for nearly four months. And yet it's his third time playing Hedwig, so he's been living in the character's metaphorical heels, wigs and makeup for much, much longer.
Finding the heart of crazy • It's a lot of work stoking the internal logic and imaginary back-story of a character who rages against the world through a rock-musical soundtrack, all while stalking her rock-star ex-boyfriend Tommy Gnosis. The 33-year-old actor, who works days as wardrobe supervisor for Pioneer Theatre Company, won't balk one bit if you compare his obsession to a religious conversion.
As for Swenson, he compares the role of Hedwig to the seismic changes most young people go through between the ages of 25 and 34, when the hard work of becoming an adult gets under way. Swenson said the character expresses the essence of female glamour and cabaret decadence, yet she is also a study in learning the right way to pursue personal dreams.
Hedwig's own passions are complicated and thwarted by a sex-change operation gone horribly wrong and an ex-boyfriend she cannot have. It may sound complicated. For Swenson, who grew up Mormon and came of age as a gay man, the parallels between his signature character, which he's reviving for the third time since 2003, and his personal life have resonated with clarity and force.
"It's the story of trying to complete yourself when your choices have been taken away by circumstance," he said. "In terms of acting, it's walking the line between stand-up comedy, musical theater, playing a live rock show, plus the opportunity to look fabulous and unrecognizable. … Emotionally, I'm having more fun than I've had, basically, ever."
The signature sounds of 'Origin of Love' • The actor's churning passion for the role is evident during a recent Monday-night rehearsal with The Suicycles. The four-piece band provides the loud canvas for Hedwig's song-by-song struggle for redemption, identity and true love. The world, of course, refuses to cooperate, much less understand, as she rages into the dawn, ending in a straight, 30-minute blitzkrieg of nothing but song in a finale unprecedented even in the rarefied genre of rock musicals.
Standing alongside Latoya Rhodes, who plays Hedwig's drag-queen sidekick in song, Swenson coils in silence, waiting for the opportunity to pounce. Songs like "Wig in a Box," "Wicked Little Town" and "Midnight Radio" take no prisoners where subtlety is concerned. Never mind that the show's signature number, "Origin of Love," has intellectual roots in Plato's "Symposium."
Swenson is mincing, for the third time, through this terrain, hand-in-hand with Plan-B Theatre Company. The first production, in 2003, felt like love at first sight. The second time, in 2005, gave the actor and the theater company the strength to bicker occasionally as the relationship matured. This time around the block, the theatrical partners both have the familiarity to iron out the details in the affair, but are also taking more risks.
Hitting the high notes, to land the emotional lows • Jerry Rapier, who is directing the Plan-B Theatre show, warns there are vital differences between the work's stage production and the 2001 film made famous by director John Cameron Mitchell.
The stage show is executed in a cabaret style, and the vital plot point is that Hedwig's ex, Gnosis, is playing a concert in nearby Deer Valley. Worming her way into the next available venue, Hedwig sets about performing her own show so that her ex might finally acknowledge that she wrote the songs that made him famous and that proclaimed her love for him.
"It's difficult to say anything intelligent about it plot-point by plot-point," Rapier said. "In a way, it's like getting drunk just enough at a party to tell your own story, play all the characters in your life, then reach the moment when performance becomes truth."
Complicating the context is a detail "Hedwig" aficionados say is crucial, even if the audience pays more attention to the show's gender-bending spectacles. Hedwig, Rapier said, is not a transgender character. Because of the botched operation, she's yet to move from man to fully woman. In dramatic terms, she's simply and inelegantly stuck.
"This is the most confusing pronoun show in the history of theater," Rapier offers. "It shows how tidy people want theater to be. This is not that."
Swenson calibrates the emotional challenges of the role this way: "You have to hit the high notes just right, so that the emotional lows of the show make sense. You have to pay for the melancholy that unfolds later. Otherwise, it's just a bunch of whining."
Adding grace notes to Swenson's all-consuming vision of the role is that he's parlayed his professional skills from day job at Pioneer Theatre Company to design costumes for the first time for this production of "Hedwig."
Little wonder, then, that he's clocking so little sleep. "Because I'm a perfectionist, I'm also a horrible procrastinator," Swenson said.
After all, getting the character transformation just right takes dramatic force, fussing, tantrums. There's more blogging to do, more tweets to send, another round of makeup to apply. Hedwig's fans are waiting.
'Hedwig and the Angry Inch'
When • June 8, 8 p.m.; June 9, 5 and 8 p.m.; June 10, 6 p.m.; June 14-16, 8 p.m.; and June 17, 6 p.m.
Where • Egyptian Theatre, 328 Main St., Park City
Info • $30-$17. Call 435-649-9371 or visit http://www.parkcityshows.com for more information. Ages 13 and over recommended.
Also • Lead Aaron Swenson and the rest of the cast will also perform a three-song set from the production for the Utah Pride Festival, Sunday, June 3, at 1 p.m. on the festival's north stage at Washington Square, 451 S. State St., Salt Lake City.
Where • Egyptian Theatre, 328 Main St., Park City
More • "8," a play by Dustin Lance Black, will receive a staged reading on Aug. 4-5. Visit http://www.planbtheatre.org for more information.