gamut (2006-28)

Joseph Beureline pulls off fishnets and up-to-here miniskirts better than most women. His legs are svelte and go on for miles, further elongated by the spiked heels of his boots. He leans provocatively over the microphone, lips pursed, cord clenched in his fist. His voice has the smoke of a lounge singer and the horsepower of a church choir, but the most striking contradictions are contained by his eyes. For all the loneliness swimming inside, they might as well have “vacancy” signs hanging from their lashes, yet they smolder with a kind of irrepressible bravado, a confidence backlit by hope.

Moments later, Beureline is collapsed on the floor. It’s the climax of the play, the part where his character, Hedwig, an overlooked glam-rock goddess and the victim of a botched sex-change operation, is supposed to tear off her womanly garments in a fit of gender-acceptance. Beureline’s shirt lies in a crumpled heap a few feet away, but his bra isn’t cooperating.

He tugs helplessly at the red, zippered wardrobe malfunction that’s now encircling his waist, much to the amusement of the cast and crew at tonight’s rehearsal of Hedwig and the Angry Inch . Their snickers boil over into laughter when he finally works his body free from its silken bondage, chucking the bra into the bleachers with a dismissive pout. Breasts or no breasts, Beureline has this diva character down.

After a water break, the star is back at his microphone, from which the red bra now swings. The comic relief of the moment before is in the past; Beureline is once again all business. Shirtless, he trails a suggestive finger up the length of his thigh, lifting the hem of his skirt subtly to reveal the ambiguous shadows below. The rock band on the stage behind him charges into the song’s chorus, and Beureline’s pelvis suddenly erupts into a seizure of thrusts. He stares down the audience hungrily, aggressively. It’s a kind of unspoken confrontation. Does this make you uncomfortable? Can you handle it? Will you walk out?  

Black Box Theatre and its resident company, the Actors Co-op, believe it’s a question that Knoxville is ready to answer.

Hedwig director and Co-op founder Amy Hubbard doesn’t immediately strike one as an envelope-pusher. Sitting cross-legged on the floor of the Black Box dressing room, the mother-of-two pushes a wayward strand of hair behind her ear and watches her 10-month-old daughter toddle across the floor. Emma Jean is teething right now, Hubbard explains, and a little crankier than usual. At the moment, though, she seems pretty happy: Her flirtatious smile and precocious blue eyes belie any pain she might be feeling.

“I moonlight as a soccer mom and, you know, I direct this tranny musical by night,” Hubbard says with a mischievous grin later over lunch. “A lot of people in the company have kids right now. We have kids all around us. We’re kind of yin and yang with ourselves, which I think is good. It keeps the company very vibrant, it keeps our artists excited, and it gives us a wide range of people we can work with so we’re not pigeonholing ourselves in any way.”

Which is to say, the Co-op isn’t abandoning all-ages accessibility for the edgier fare that’s lacing this season’s calendar. The company’s reading initiative program and Whippersnapper Playhouse, a series of plays geared toward younger audiences, are still in full swing. The latter’s three-play lineup looks intriguing even by adult standards, offering fresh, smart and inventive updates on classic children’s narratives. “We’re committed to children’s programming,” Hubbard confirms.

Meanwhile, the Black Box Main Stage schedule is seeking to break new ground—or at least revisit ground it hasn’t seen in some time. The Co-op’s 2006-07 calendar kicks off with Hedwig and the Angry Inch , a rock musical tracing a transvestite’s life story from her troubled childhood in East Berlin to her current state-of-affairs as an underrated song-stylist withering in the shadow of her former lover/ protégé Tommy Gnosis, now a stadium-rock phenomenon. Hedwig is followed by a production of Unidentified Human Remains and the True Nature of Love , a graphically sexual and violent thriller that Hubbard describes as “even more controversial than Hedwig ,” and Landscape with Stick Figures , about a fictional school shooting, with a comedy thrown in for good measure mid-season. It may be the bravest season the Co-op has opted to tackle since the company was founded 10 years ago.  

“When the Actors Co-op started, we were able to take more risks because we didn’t have the same kind of overhead that we have now,” Hubbard says. For instance, they didn’t have a permanent theater space to maintain; the Black Box, located on the backside of Homberg Square, didn’t come into the picture until five years later. In the meantime, they performed wherever a venue was available. The Co-op’s first two shows were in the Tomato Head; and they later held with some regularity in the Old City’s West Jackson Avenue Marketplace building, above the antique shop, although there was no heat, air conditioning or restrooms. “I can’t believe people actually came to some of those shows,” Hubbard says, shaking her head.

“Now, as we come full circle—we’re entering our 10th season, we’ve been in the Black Box Theatre now for five years—the company is ready to go back to that, we’re all kind of itching for that,” she explains. Hubbard is referring not to the company’s former transient existence, but to the type of plays they were able to put on, unbound by the worry that, if they put on a controversial play and nobody showed to watch it, the company couldn’t pay its rent.

But Knoxville isn’t the same city it was 10 years ago, and the Co-op has been steadily gaining footing as a theater company with a talented cast and consistently well done and thought provoking shows. Hubbard has been biding her time, waiting for the right moment to test both the company’s mettle and the city’s social consciousness.

It was 2001 when the stars first began to align. Hubbard saw John Cameron Mitchell’s Hedwig and the Angry Inch at the Sundance Film Festival, where it won “Best Picture,” and learned that it was originally based on a play. “Ever since then, I’ve thought, we’ve got to do that play. What a coup that would be,” she says. “Then I went to see it in Asheville three or four years ago, and I was like, OK, I can see how this can be done. But I don’t think we’re ready for it yet.”

Casting for Hedwig is different than casting for a usual theater production. It’s a musical, interrupted by monologues, so it requires a full band of musicians who can also act—a rare find. Perhaps more importantly, it requires the right actor to pull off Hedwig’s role. “The theater talk about Hedwig is, ‘You don’t do Hedwig unless you have a Hedwig,’” Hubbard says.

When a proposal to perform the play came up at this year’s Co-op season-planning meeting, the company members’ eagerness to take it on was underscored by skepticism. Hubbard calls their decision to write Hedwig into the schedule, with the cast still in question, “a leap of faith.”

But it wasn’t long before the pieces began to fall into place. Beureline, who’d had designs on producing the play himself for some time, approached Hubbard about playing the role of Hedwig. She gave him an audition, it was a natural fit, and Beureline proceeded to show up at the first rehearsal ready to go, with his lines already memorized (no small feat, considering the fact that Hedwig’s dialogue and singing carry the majority of the play).

Christopher Hamblin, who happens to be a friend of the Hedwig film director John Mitchell Cameron, signed on as music director, a multifarious role that often entails singing, pounding away at the piano, and directing the band simultaneously.

Then there was the question of casting the band, including Hedwig’s oft-neglected backup singer/cross-dressing girlfriend, Yitzhak. Hubbard says the light bulb finally came on when she ran into, of all people, local singer-songwriter Jodie Manross. The director saw, in her petite frame and voluminous voice, a potential Yitzhak. In a fateful twist of events, Manross agreed to bring her band on board as well, including drummer Nathan Barrett as Schlatko and bassist Mike Murphy as Jacek. Guitarist Lucas Flatt rounded out the lineup as Krzyzhof. “The universe answered all our questions,” Hubbard recalls. “It was an unbelievably simple process.”

As the cast wraps up its final rehearsals before opening night, the only question that remains is how Knoxville audiences will respond to this musical that poses so many difficult questions: What is love? What is gender? What walls separate truth and tradition, and how do we tear them down?

The Actors Co-op mentality seems to be that, if you ask the hard questions in the most honest way you know how, the community will be brave enough to answer. “It’s going to be a very challenging season for us,” Hubbard concludes. “But we’re really looking forward to it, and Hedwig will be a great way to start it off.”

What: Hedwig and the Angry Inch Where: Black Box Theatre When: Friday, July 14 thru Saturday, August 5; 8 p.m. How Much: $12 for students, seniors and military; $16 for general admission on Friday and Saturday nights; Thursdays are half-price. Tickets go on sale Monday, July 3. For reservations, call 523-7521 or visit knoxtix.com. Season passes are also available.