If the very talented – and very male – actor Andrew Long seems an odd casting choice for a coy girl-around-town named Ms. Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, then I Am My Own Wife can help teach a timeless lesson: it’s what’s on the inside that counts. Look a little closer and you’ll see that Long actually embodies Lothar Berfelde, an East German born in the late 1920s, who lived as Charlotte for many glorious, troubled, infamous decades. As she explains with a knowing smile: “Ich bin Transvestit.”
Charlotte isn’t the only chameleon act of the evening. Long also plays travellers, friends, Nazi relatives and Stasi officers, members of the press, and even Doug Wright, the playwright, himself. The play is a literary marriage of forms, blending biography, memoir, and dabs of surrealism into a sharp theatrical exploration of what it means to discover and record history.
Signature’s staging of the Pulitzer-winning script casts an understated but respectful spotlight on Charlotte’s legacy as a gay icon, and director Alan Paul demonstrates clear focus on the challenges of having a single actor portray 36 characters. The result is a well-sculpted production that’s a bit too methodical for its own good. In peering intently into Ms. von Mahsldorf’s jubilant, mischievous life, the show drapes a heavy shroud of concentration over many of the script’s nimbler tricks, and the result is a bit like dancing with someone who keeps watching their feet. The energy that does manage to permeate is enough to stir the mind, but not enough to stick deep in the heart.
Wright first received word of Charlotte in 1990, when his journalist friend John Marks sent a letter from Berlin. “In the midst of all this craziness, I’ve found a true character,” wrote Marks. “She may well be the most singular, eccentric individual the Cold War ever birthed.” For years under Nazi and Communist rule, Charlotte had lived openly gay and in drag, working as a second-hand goods dealer and as a collector of antique furniture. Her massive collections became the Gründerzeit Museum, frequented by gays in and around Berlin through the 1960s and 70s. By the time the Wall fell, she was hostess to the only remaining Weimar cabaret in Eastern Germany – an act of preservation that earned her a Medal of Honor from the Cultural Ministry. Wright was immediately spurred to write a play. “If Charlotte were a curator of nineteenth-century antiques,” he has said, “I would present myself in the play as a curator of her.”
Survival, especially during the Third Reich, comes at a price, and the design team has created a space prickling with melancholy. The elegant lighting by Colin K. Bills wavers between the warm passion of yesterday and the cool retrospective of today. Wilson Chin’s set emphasizes the archival – dozens of stacked boxes, nailed shut, which emit a radiant light through transparent wood grain to reveal Charlotte’s treasures within. Only the black dress Long wears through most of the show trips up the momentum – it reads more like a unisex nightgown, with too loose a shape to capture and transform the sexualities Long evokes as he hopscotches from character to character.
Like her sets of phonographs, keys and clocks, the woman herself always seems to be peeking out of a box, maintaining her privacy even in public. Long’s take on Charlotte is soft and demure – an interviewee who sometimes giggles and grins, but rarely seeks attention. It’s difficult to sell such a timid creature as the central core of a drama – one gets the impression she’s on stage against her better judgment – and Long’s emphasis on Charlotte’s advancing age (she’s about sixty-five) and relative homeliness doesn’t help to stoke the flames of passion we always hope to catch, like a fever, from interesting, enthusiastic people. It’s neat how the once-glorified Charlotte now imparts the air of an old book on a shelf, but does she have to come off as so dusty?
The show finds its true rhythm in the second act, when our heroine slips seamlessly into flashback and relives a complicated personal – and political – relationship with Alfred Kirschner, a headstrong gentleman who, like her, collected pieces of the past. It’s in Alfred’s brash body that Long taps the genuine ardor of a citizen struggling against the overwhelming currents of circumstance. If only Charlotte fell, even momentarily, into such sharp focus.
It’s unclear whether Charlotte’s cloak-and-dagger romance with Alfred happened down dark alleys or simply in the corridors of her own mind, and appropriately so; Wright soon learns that thinning the stream of history down to a single thread of truth is as impossible as letting only one soul through a gap in the Berlin Wall. Memory is a shared endeavor — it flows like language, and you have to open your mind in order to speak it. Or, as Charlotte offers mid-interview: “You speak German. Me, English. I wear your clothes, and you wear mine.”
I Am My Own Wife
Written by Doug Wright
Directed by Alan Paul
Produced by Signature Theatre
Reviewed by Hunter Styles
I Am My Own Wife runs thru March 7, 2010.
Click here for Details, Directions and Tickets.
I AM MY OWN WIFE