I Am My Own Wife

Review by Adam Blair

By Doug Wright
Directed by Moisés Kaufman
Featuring Jefferson Mays
At Playwrights Horizons, New York City

"The magic of theater" is an overworn phrase that, like many clichés, retains a core of truth. How else can I explain that one actor fills a theater with more personalities than resided inside poor Sybil, using nothing but his own talents in conjunction with razor-sharp direction, with both in the service of a weird yet wonderful story?

I Am My Own Wife is a kind of fictional biography of Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, "Berlin's most famous transvestite." She/he (I'll refer to the character as she, as the play does) was a real person, biologically a man named Lothar Berfelde, who survived and thrived through two of the world's most horrifying regimes - the Nazis and the East German Communists. Author Doug Wright met and interviewed her in 1992 and 1993, and has created the play based on those conversations as well as newspaper accounts and Charlotte's Stasi secret police file.

Charlotte's survival strategy, as a cross-dressing gay man living under governments dedicated either to exterminating homosexuals or declaring that they simply don't exist, was to become a collector of things that others might have thrown aside or considered no more than mere furniture. Her two main collecting passions - for vintage phonographs dating all the way back to Edison's talking machine and to clocks of varying shapes, sizes and types - seem to have been chosen as much for their symbolic weight as their beauty, utility and monetary value.

Charlotte's story is fantastic in more ways than one. The play can be very funny and it's rarely less than compelling. Wright, whose best-known work is Quills, about the Marquis de Sade's final days in an authoritarian madhouse (made into a recent film starring Geoffrey Rush), again chooses a self-dramatizing monster as the subject of his work. The play's first act is Wright's infatuation with Charlotte (as a gay icon, a survivor and a real-life character). The second act pulls back the veils to reveal that some of Charlotte's stories are just that, stories, and that many facets of her persona are, on closer inspection, less than appealing.

More than anything, I Am My Own Wife is a tour de force for actor Jefferson Mays. Using only one costume change, Mays creates not only a touching yet mysterious Charlotte but her key family members (from abusive father to sympathetic lesbian aunt), those Charlotte loved and those she betrayed (often the same person), and author Wright himself. With a few key gestures for each - the return of Charlotte is identified not only with Mays' vocal and facial changes but the obsessive twiddling of Charlotte's only piece of jewelry, a simple string of pearls - Mays fills the stage with crowds of people.

He is aided significantly by director Moisés Kaufman, who has also had experience creating compelling contemporary contexts for real-life events, as writer and director of Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde as well as direction of The Laramie Project, about the Matthew Shepard murder. Kaufman and Mays, along with scenic designer Derek McLane and lighting designer David Lander, turn the basic stage space of Playwrights Horizons' mainstage theater into Charlotte's obsessively-kept museum of late-19th-century furniture with the most basic means. The seeming simplicity of the direction and design is not only necessary to keep all the characters straight, but also serves as a nice contrast as we discover who Charlotte is, and isn't.

Wright's play works as a meditation on how someone creates a "character" in order to survive rejection, harassment and persecution. The danger of hiding is, of course, that one's authentic self gets lost as well. The slight frustration I felt at play's end is that, while we get some sense of the true core of Charlotte/Lothar, we've been through so many fictional, self-serving stories that it's hard to know what to believe any longer. In fact, it's not clear what Wright believes, and his point may be that it's impossible to know Charlotte - impossible for him, for us and maybe even for her.

I Am My Own Wife is a unique theatrical experience. I can't imagine another actor bringing the skills and emotional grounding to it that Mays does. Unfortunately the play is in a limited run at New York City's Playwrights Horizons, but I have a feeling this play will live on much the way Charlotte did - with a combination of showmanship and cunning.

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