By Doug Wright
Produced by Olney Theatre Center
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
I Am My Own Wife is a sort of theatrical magic act, calling on a virtuoso performer to take up nearly three dozen different roles in the course of a single two-hour evening. It did not occur to Doug Wright or his first director, Moisés Kaufman, to so cast the show until Jefferson Mays first auditioned and they realized that it could be done. Mays won a Tony Award (and a Helen Hayes) for what he did with the role, and it was easy to see why. Watching Jefferson Mays is a little like watching Willie Mays; the enterprise appears to be so effortless that we forget how hard the matter is, and at the end of the show we have to remind ourselves that we had not seen a dozen actors, but only Mays.
In the intimate setting of Olney Theatre’s Mulitz-Gudelsky Theatre Lab, Arnie Burton’s accomplishment is a little less preternatural, but it is solid and satisfying. The challenge I Am My Own Wife presents the actor is not the range of characterization – most actors can do forty or more characters, and indeed perform that many during their career – but in the transition from one to the other. Many of the characters exist for no more than a half-line, and then immediately become someone else. There is simply no time for the actor to step back from one character and into another; the transformation must take place before our eyes.
Mays, who performed the play at the Warner in 2005, gave each character an identifying look or gesture, so that the audience became co-conspirators in his effort to separate his characters. Burton eschews this device, and instead establishes his characters through subtle changes in tone of voice, dialect and volume. We identify the transition a fraction of a second later with Burton’s technique, but it is just as effective
By concentrating less on dazzling technique and more on the human dilemmas which confront his main characters Charlotte von Mahlsdorf and playwright Doug Wright, Burton and director John Going manage to move the focus from the performer to the story.
It’s a good story. von Mahlsdorf was actually Lothar Berfelde, a man who, early in life, discovered that he was emotionally and psychologically female. He showed spectacularly poor judgment in picking a time and place to be born however, ending up first in Nazi Germany, and then in Soviet-occupied East Germany – two of the most homophobic regimes in human history. The story of von Mahlsdorf’s survival under extraordinarily hostile circumstances, however, is not the substance of I Am My Own Wife. The story is how the playwright Wright got to know this amazing character, how their relationship grew, and what he came to learn about himself from her.
Survival is perhaps not the right word. In East Germany, a people’s republic, von Mahlsdorf managed to maintain a private museum in a 23-room mansion. The Gründerzeit Museum, as it came to be known, housed a bewildering array of phonographs, clocks, tables, couches and other antiques from the thirty years following Germany’s 1871 victory in the Franco-Prussian war. (Mary Anne Chimalt assembles them at the back of her gorgeous set, and Mitchell Dana lights them up brilliantly. Joe Payne also merits kudos for excellent sound design.) Most astonishingly, the museum also hosted a fully functional gay and lesbian bar, which was open for business every Sunday afternoon.
von Mahlsdorf’s story was too good to be true, or, at least, to be the whole truth. The collapse of the East German government and the reunification with West Germany brought von Mahlsdorf’s accomplishment to light. Further scrutiny of the files maintained by the Stasi, East Germany’s fearsome secret police, put it into context. That she was an informer whose testimony put at least one fellow antiques dealer in prison should not be surprising. After all, the first thing a tyranny compromises is the integrity of its citizens. (See A Man for All Seasons at Keegan for more on this subject). At its height, the Stasi had a third of all East Germans on its payroll, as children informed on parents, husbands informed on wives, and workers informed on each other.
Wright, himself a gay man who had lived in the hostile environment of the Bible Belt, sees von Mahlsdorf’s perseverance in the face of enormous threat as a triumph of the human spirit. He resolves to write a play based on her life, even selling his car to finance a trip to Germany after the grant money runs out. When he begins to read the content of the newly-released Stasi files, he is honest enough to admit that he needs to believe it is false.
Burton’s habitation of the two main characters, von Mahlsdorf and Wright, is subdued, but effective. His voice is nowhere near as feminine as von Mahlsdorf’s was (a recording of one of her interviews with Wright was played at the end of the show), but since during the play von Mahlsdorf never presents herself as other than a biological male living as a woman, Burton’s voice is certainly sufficient. Unlike Mays, Burton does not attempt a dead-on impersonation of Wright, but unless you’ve heard Wright speak it won’t make any difference.
Burton is particularly satisfying in establishing male authority characters – von Mahlsdorf’s father, a man so brutal even the Nazis kicked him out, becomes particularly transparent – and the fatuous media. Burton’s presentation of Ziggy Fluss, who appears to be a Eurotrash talk-show host, is outrageously funny.
I Am My Own Wife is real life, which is more ambiguous and difficult to resolve than is drama. As with The Laramie Project, another Kaufman production, the author discovers something quite different than what he set out to find. As von Mahlsburg’s heroic story begins to disintegrate against a static of contradictions and contrary evidence, Wright discovers something to admire even in her compromised endurance, and so begins to embrace the lowered expectations of the real world.
I Am My Own Wife continues at Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Rd, Olney, MD through May 27th. Wednesdays through Sundays at 7.45 until May 27. In addition, there are matinees at 1.45 on Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays, except on Wednesday, May 2. There will also be a 7,45 show on Tuesday, May 8. All tickets $36-$46; call 301.924.3400 or go to www.olneytheatre.org for tickets.