By Jessica Goldman, April 26 2013, ApplauseMeter! Blog
How do you curate a life? It’s the question asked by playwright Doug Wright, as himself, in his compelling 2003 Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winning play, I Am My Own Wife. Wright’s challenge is made all the more complex by the very real and controversial life he is attempting to dramatize for us. Born in 1928 under the name Lothar Berfelde, Charlotte von Mahlsdorf was a German transvestite who managed to survive and thrive under both the Nazi regime and communist-controlled East Germany.
Upon hearing Charlotte’s story from a reporter friend, Wright travels to Germany hoping his interviews with her will allow him to pen a tale of gay heroism in the face of terrible adversity. This was the play we wanted to write. But the more Wright learns about Charlotte, the more imperfect she becomes. Did she kill an abusive father or a father she simply didn’t like? Was she a passionate antiques collector and museum owner or a thief who stole Jew’s furniture when they were carted off to the camps? Was she a protector of the gay community or a secret Stassi spy? With no way to discern what truly happened all those years ago, Wright gives us a play that embraces the full ambiguity that was Charlotte’s life and lets the contradictions stand as both intriguing drama and intellectually juicy questions.
However, more than the story itself which at times is overly matter of fact and lacking emotional punch, it’s how Wright configures his drama and how Third Street Theatre’s production brings it to life that makes I Am My Own Wife truly enthralling theatre. The play is written as a one-man show with no fewer than thirty-six characters of different gender, language, accent and age. Played here by the incredibly talented Paul Welch, with astute direction from Kevin McKendrick, we are treated to vivid characters in a performance that is wonderfully self-aware and perceptive. Welch’s chameleon-like ability to morph from a sixty-five year old distinctly unglamorous but sweet transvestite with a heavy German accent to a southern-drawl American reporter to an oily German TV talk show host is remarkable. Equally impressive is Welch’s ability to switch back and forth between English and German without sacrificing one iota of acting prowess. Frankly my tongue got tied just listening to him chew through the plentiful dialogue that would have left a lesser performer gasping for air.
Complementing the richness of the subject and dialogue is the relative simplistic elegance of Deitra Kalyn’s set design. Respecting the smallness of the theatre, Kalyn does not try to replicate the grandness of the show’s Broadway set which was strewn with the antiques that comprised Charlotte’s Gründerzeit Museum of furniture, gramophones, clocks and records. Instead, dozens of pencil illustrations of the objects are hung reverently, creating a collage that echoes the clutter. Pieces are talked about, moved, played with and even dusted. But all this is done through exquisitely directed mime with not a real object in sight. It’s a shame that this elegance is disrupted by a small video screen showing signifier projections like Are you a boy or a girl? and Listening or Curating, to identify the quick chapter-like scenes in the play. For the most part these title projections were redundant and at worst meaningless.
But by the time the play winds down to its 75 minute mark, whatever deficits of emotional connection or quibbles with design choices, there is no doubt that we have witnessed a little piece of greatness. I have long ago given up believing that a play will be terrific simply because it has an award attached to it. But Wright’s beautiful dialogue and structure in combination with McKendrick’s sensitive direction and a thoroughly outstanding effort by Welch, makes I Am My Own Wife, one award-winning play I can happily cheer for.
For the guys and the girls – Drop your image of Rocky Horror’s Frankenfurter, Charlotte is the farthest thing from a campy transvestite you’ll ever see. In fact, to my read, the show is not so much about Charlotte’s difference but instead her commonality. Good and bad. And while you’ll wish you had more of an emotional tug from the character, her story will fascinate you. SEE IT
For the occasional theater goer – Charlotte is a tough character to get to know in a narrative structure that will be too disjointed and possibly frenetic for you to enjoy. Plus loose ends are generally not your cup of tea. SKIP IT
For the theatre junkie – When direction this good meets an actor up to the challenge, magic happens. SEE IT