Pulitzer winning solo show expertly explores relationship between a playwright and his protagonist
By Stephen Hunt, April 30 2013, Calgary Herald.
Charlotte was a good story. An older, quirky East German transvestite, who ran a private museum containing old records and other stuff, she had survived the Second World War — narrowly — and survived Communism too, despite living openly in a world where queer people were considered wild game.
When New York playwright Doug Wright heard about Charlotte from his Berlin friend John, a writer for U.S. News Report, he believed he’d discovered his next play.
That’s the scenario that unfolds in I Am My Own Wife, a spellbinding solo show performed rather heroically by Paul Welch, who plays Charlotte, Wright, John and 33 other characters as well.
Unfolding on a simple set in the intimate confines of Motel, Welch transports the audience back and forth across the ocean and the decades, between New York and Berlin as he recounts Wright’s journey unravelling Charlotte’s amazing personal history.
Here’s Charlotte showing off her artifacts at the Grundzeit Museum, playing old records, regaling us with the story of how she hung on to her LP’s by Jewish composers during the war by papering over the labels and writing the name of Nazi-friendly ones on them (Wild About Wagner?).
Here’s Doug Wright, trying to piece together a personal history that has a few nagging gaps in it. There’s the story of her abusive Nazi father, whom she may or not have murdered. There’s a little chronological issue about how she acquired some of her stuff. And then, just as it seems Wright has pieced together the protagonist’s narrative, all the playwrights’ presumptions about Charlotte are turned on their heads.
I am My Own Wife is full of wonderful stories, well-rendered by Welch, who is superbly directed here by Kevin McKendrick.
Jumping back and forth between a heavy German accent and a mildly American southern one, Welch manages to clearly delineate each one of those 36 characters (there are only about five primary ones) as he spills out his remarkable yarn, which won the 2004 Pulitzer Prize.
What’s also of interest is that Charlotte’s sexual orientation is not very much the point of I am My Own Wife — it’s a sidebar that Charlotte accepts quite matter-of-factly. With her casual, matter-of-fact delivery of the stories of her youth, Charlotte asks us to as well, even as she shares stories of creating an underground gay nightclub for East Berlin’s queer community to gather together during the long, dark decades of the Communist regime of Eric Hondeker, (when one in six East Germans worked as an informant for the Stasi, the East German secret police).
She’s far more concerned with her museum and her artifacts, which she absolutely treasures far out of proportion to their actual value — she’s more like the East German, transgendered equivalent of a Star Wars collectible geek.
The only true love light that shines in Charlotte’s eye is when she meets another collector, which makes it that much more devastating when he finds himself accused by the government of being in possession of foreign currency, a big no-no in the bad old East German days.
That leads to a prison term for him, and more stuff for Charlotte, which raises more questions about her past, leading to a conclusion where the playwright ultimately decides a flawed protagonist is the truest way of all to capture the world Charlotte comes from.
Deitra Kayln’s smartly-designed set effectively conveys the world of Central Europe and Manhattan too, where space is tight and you survive psychologically by decorating your cubby-sized rooms with a few of your favourite things.
It’s all beautifully directed by McKendrick — his ninth show of the season in Calgary — who once again underlines the truth about theatre, which is that there’s nothing that grabs an audience’s attention better than a good story, well told.
While Charlotte might be a quirky character — in addition to all else, it has been suggested that she was autistic — I am My Own Wife asks universal and accessible questions about how we write history, how we build our identities, and about how, at the best of times, each of us turns our lives into a good story — even if it means bending the facts a bit.