"I Am My Own Wife" at the Trustus Side Door Theatre - a review

I Am My Own Wife, currently running in the Trustus Side Door Theatre, is simultaneously a candid, personal portrait of one unusual individual, and an almost epic overview, told in some 35 voices, of a half-century of societal changes in East Germany. Along the way, the play comments on the importance of preserving the artifacts of our shared cultural experiences,  and uses theatre as both a tool and a metaphor for the nature of history and memory as we perceive them.  Amazingly, one actor, Paul Kaufmann, accomplishes all of this by himself, alone on stage for nearly two hours, in an intimate 50-seat venue.

The title character calls herself Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, but Mahlsdorf is actually the suburb of East Berlin where she was born Lothar Berfelde, a man who lived and dressed as a woman through the Nazi and Communist regimes; for clarity, let's refer to Charlotte uniformly as "she."  Decades before gender-reassignment existed, Charlotte is no flamboyant cabaret performer, just a rather dowdy, soft-spoken, crazy-cat-lady sort of woman, working as an antiques dealer, then as curator and proprietor of her house-museum of vintage furniture and other domestic furnishings.  Post-reunification of Germany, playwright Doug Wright (inserting himself as a character into his own play) records Charlotte's oral history, seeing her tale of struggle and survival as inspirational and redemptive. But as Charlotte becomes a national cult celebrity, questions arise as to how much of her amazing story may have been exaggerated, how much may have been glossed over, and how much is self-serving.  Wright struggles both as character and author to reconcile his personal, emotional need to believe Charlotte, and his desire to reflect the actual truth.  Yet in a brilliant (and for me, entirely unexpected, although I should have seen it coming a mile away) resolution, Charlotte's own beliefs on the value of historic conservation transfer to the stage and provide an answer: history, written or spoken, is invariably told by someone, while an artifact speaks for itself, allowing each of us our own interpretation. As Wright realizes early on, Charlotte is her own most valuable cultural artifact.  Esoteric, philosophical questions like this alternate with vivid, first-person accounts of the war and its aftermath, and the extraordinary dangers faced by the gay community in a repressive society; not surprisingly, Wright's script won both the Pulitzer Prize and the Tony Award for Best Drama.

The play was not at all what I had expected. While kicking off the Side Door Theatre's "Sexploration" series (of shows exploring issues of sexuality) there really isn't much sex. In many ways it more closely resembles a live recreation of a detailed PBS documentary on Nazi-era Germany and its Cold War aftermath, incorporating narratives from survivors.  Charlotte's cross-dressing and gay lifestyle seem not all that different from experiences of Jews or devout Catholics, likewise determined to live life on their own terms, whatever the risk.  For me the most poignant moment was Charlotte's account of her own sort of rebel underground: risking her freedom and indeed life by providing a gathering spot for the gay community, once their club is closed down by the state.  In a truth-is-stranger-than fiction moment, Charlotte the obsessive collector and antiquarian salvages most of the original fixtures and furniture from the bar, recreating it in her basement.

Heather Abraham's set design is naturally limited by the tiny space, but the basics of what we need are there, i.e. the suggestion of a house/museum full of dusty, domestic relics. Lighting by Barry Sparks and sound by James A. Watts help establish particular moods and tones at just the right moment.   With a one-actor play, it's impossible to know where to give praise, to the performer or the director, so I'll credit both Kaufmann and director Ellen Douglas Schlaefer (who first collaborated on this show at Workshop five years ago) equally.  The majority of the dialogue is Charlotte telling her own story to the audience, but occasionally slipping into other characters from her life.  Most of these only have a few lines, but Kaufmann has a separate, unique voice for each.  The subtleties are impressive - Charlotte has the heaviest accent, so that we always remember where and when the action is taking place.  Occasionally this means Kaufmann is having a conversation with himself, but he does it almost all vocally, i.e. he retains the body language of Charlotte, simply altering his tone, pitch, and perhaps expression, rather than attempting to make a more definitive movement, or don some different costume or wig.  His voice as Charlotte is gentle and fairly high, although no different from many soft-spoken men. Only once does he convincingly affect the voice of a young woman, in a brief and amusing bit as the German equivalent of a valley girl. My favorite character, however, was Alfred Kirschner (the only character for which Kaufmann changes costume) who maintains a defiant, bitchy sort of battered dignity while incarcerated by the secret police.  I haven't seen Kaufmann play many sympathetic characters - even in the recent Next to Normal  (in which, astoundingly, he was performing nightly while presumably rehearsing this show!) I felt sorry for him, but didn't entirely like the character; here there are enough for anyone to find one to whom they can relate.

Admittedly, not everyone may want to see man in a dress playing different characters, or care about events that happened thousands of miles away and before many of us were born, or want to reflect on the conflicting natures of truth, memory and history.  I recently wrote that Columbia needed something like the late-night Last Call Series production of Plan 9 From Outer Space every weekend of the year. We also need dozens of one-performer plays like I Am My Own Wife, that showcase the talent of local theatre artists. Seeing a "serious" show like this in such an intimate space really makes you think you're in the middle of New York City, where plentiful audiences ensure lengthy runs for the edgiest or most controversial fare, in the tiniest of venues.  Sadly, there are only 5 chances left to see this one: tonight (Friday) Sat. the 13th, and then Thurs. 10/18 through Sat. 10/20.  All performances are at 8 PM; contact the box office at 254-9732 for more information, or visit www.trustus.org.

~ August Krickel