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It's easy to understand why Doug Wright's 2003 Broadway play, I Am My Own Wife, won the Tony Award for Best Play and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, along with five other prestigious trophies. It's the fascinating true saga of a German gay man who survived the Nazi regime, East Germany's Communist control, and the rise of neo-Nazis, while wearing dresses and living openly as a woman. A single actor plays the main character and nearly three dozen other parts during the two-act, two-hour piece. Theatre Raleigh's production deserves its own award for a bravura solo performance, expertly concise direction, and vivid technical elements.
As a young boy in Berlin, Lothar Berfelde already felt like a girl trapped in a male body. His lesbian aunt allowed him to dress up in her clothes and gave him a book to read on transvestism. His effeminate ways and burgeoning interest in antiques angered his father, leading to a death threat. Lothar turned the tables, beating his father to death with a rolling pin. He was eventually jailed at 16 years old as a juvenile delinquent. But the end of World War II gave him his freedom, and he began dressing as a woman, now calling himself Charlotte and preferring feminine pronouns. She began rescuing household items from bombed out homes, eventually gathering them in a manor house located outside Berlin in Mahlsdorf, which she turned into a museum.
At the height of the Communist control of East Berlin, Charlotte von Mahlsdorf (her new full name), was harassed and threatened by the secret police, but she outlasted them, gaining newfound freedom after the fall of the Berlin Wall. New threats came from Neo-Nazi youths who confronted her and her guests at the museum in the early 1990s, which she also managed to survive. By then, she had become something of a celebrity, being awarded a medal for preservation of German furnishings and being interviewed on TV and in magazines about her life of defiance.
Enter playwright Doug Wright, who, following a tip given to him by an American journalist friend in Berlin, wrangled permission to interview Charlotte beginning in 1993. He recorded dozens of interview tapes over many months, fueling an obsession with Charlotte's troubles and her ability to overcome them. The play had a long birthing as Wright struggled with how to tell it, made more difficult when Charlotte's secret police files became public. They indicated that she likely cooperated with the secret police to a greater extent than she previously admitted, throwing Wright's hero-worshipping stance into doubt. Ultimately, Wright decided that his story of discovery could help structure the play. He also decided that one actor should play all the parts, based on workshop readings by a talented actor friend (Jefferson Mays, who went on to win the Tony Award for Best Actor in the Broadway production.)
Those decisions put a big onus on any actor to capably differentiate all 34 roles and respectfully play them without exaggeration. David Henderson, one of the area's most respected actors, took on the challenge at the opening with impressive results. The script requires the actor to be costumed in a simple black dress, pearls, and sensible shoes as Charlotte, but he must enact the other parts without changing costume. This Henderson did with mere changes of posture (shifting from stiffly crossed arms as a secret police agent to demurely clasped hands as Charlotte) and of voice (brash American accents and harsh German staccatos versus Charlotte's lilting cadences and amusing mixture of German and English). Henderson excelled in allowing dramatic reactions to register fully in each character's facial expression and body language.
The storyline is not linear and the scenes are episodic, providing further challenges. Here, Henderson's energy and confidence, aided by Jesse Gephart's clear, concise direction, made it easy to identify each character and each scene's locale. Gephart deserves credit for being fully conscious of the audience on all sides in this three-quarter-round setup, moving Henderson frequently enough to all parts of the stage to maximize seeing the actor's face and hearing his voice clearly. Henderson and Gephart's approach to Charlotte was unsentimental and objective, less overtly sympathetic and moving than some interpretations, but admirable for its robust and engrossing nature.
Chris Bernier's setting of a room in Charlotte's museum has a stunning backwall of floor-to-ceiling shelves crammed with trunks, baskets, clocks, lamps, and photos, from which Charlotte picks out the props needed for any particular scene (and kudos to property designer Tim Domack). Andrew Parks' lighting adds great atmosphere, enhancing the mood of a jail cell or secret police interrogation. Eric Alexander Collins' varied sound design includes music from a cylinder machine, audio from interview tapes,and clocks chiming.
The script has many gripping moments and tells the plot in an engaging if unnecessarily convoluted way. There is a great deal of German spoken by various characters, which sometimes gets translated, but not always, making it difficult to know what you may be missing. Full appreciation of the story also requires knowing some background on World War II and the Communist rule during the Cold War, as there are names, places, and events mentioned that aren't always fully explained. The titles of most scenes are projected on screens above either side of the stage, but they can be as confusing as helpful because they are in German.
Still, the script is as relevant as ever in a time when gay and transgender rights are being threatened, along with controversies over coverups of past behaviors by public figures. Theatre Raleigh's production is a prime example of the consummate professionalism it applies to all its presentations.
I Am My Own Wife continues through Sunday, July 21. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.