Seattle Repertory’s I Am My Own Wife: Fascinating, Confounding Persona

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Pictured: Nick Garrison in I Am My Own Wife at Seattle Repertory Theatre.

Harry Turtledove wrote that “Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t.” So it is with Doug Wright’s I Am My Own Wife, a biographical portrayal of the at once perplexing and inspiring transvestite, Charlotte von Mahlsdorf. The Tony- and Pulitzer Prize-winning play (2004), comprised principally of recorded conversations between the dramatist and his muse, is a story of survival amid forces of oppression and danger.

Wright has a history of writing about history, having penned the book for the musical adaptation of Grey Gardens (2006). Prior, and to acclaim, he rendered the Marquis de Sade in Quills (1995), for the premier of which Seattle Rep’s current Artistic Director, Jerry Manning, was dramaturge, Manning at the time being the Casting Director at New York Theatre Workshop. Their collaboration on Quills was the start to an enduring friendship, which presumably accounts somewhat for Manning’s eagerness to direct Wife at the Rep. This, as well as a stated admiration for the thought-provoking and celebrated work.

I Am My Own Wife is far from chronological, leaping backward and forward in time, from von Mahlsdorf’s boyhood as Lothar Berfelde to the moments of composition of the play itself. We witness von Mahlsdorf’s interactions with her militant, Nazi father, whom she, as a young boy, murdered with a rolling-pin. We see her interactions with talk-show hosts, with friends, and with Doug Wright, with whom she graduates from subject to friend over time. Over the course of the production we see depictions of more than thirty diverse persons–men and women, young and old, American and German–portrayed by Nick Garrison, who turns in a seizing performance of interwoven voices in the one-actor drama, portraying the vast majority of the many personalities with great sensitivity and care.

Von Mahlsdorf’s survival of a profoundly terrible childhood and her myriad articulations of her identity are but a couple interesting aspects of her fascinating life. She endures a stint in a youth prison, incarcerated for murder. Cross-dressing, she survives both the Nazi reign and the subsequent oppression of the German Democratic Republic. In the face of persistent toil von Mahlsdorf, a passionate antiquarian, collects furniture and bric-a-brac, in doing so keeping the treasures safe from likely destruction at the hands of her oppressors. Her vast collection eventually becomes the Grunderzeit Museum, a hub for East Germany’s gay scene, which von Mahlsdorf manages with love and devotion, an effort for which she is eventually awarded by the German government with a medal, thus making her a much more public figure.

Most of the aforementioned is established before intermission, the second half of the show shifting to a more thorough examination of the legitimacy of von Mahlsdorf’s sensational and, at times, dubious claims. She doesn’t hold up pristinely to the scrutiny of the media, particularly to suspicion that cooperation (a.k.a. becoming an informant) with Stasi forces was what enabled her unlikely survival of so much tyranny. We are left with a mosaic of a character comprised of a multitude of opinions and perspectives, some in agreement, many in disagreement, that don’t ultimately congeal to form a cogent vision of a person. This is the point. Who was Charlotte von Mahlsdorf? What did she do and how? We cannot know for certain, but the pieces of her narrative, of her mythologizing, are beautiful, and merit consideration.

As an aside, a little reading about Wife has turned up that it was developed in collaboration with Moises Kaufman and Tectonic Theater Project (The Laramie Project). While I am not at all surprised to learn this–Tectonic having their flair for the dramatic re-examination of history–I’d be curious to learn how this contributed to the formation of the text, and how the playwright worked with the company. It seems worth a mention in the playbill and press, an acclaimed play being born through an atypical method. Source. Whatever the composition process, a distinct narrative tenor emerges from it, from the re-arranging of transcriptions of recorded musings on the past. The play is not necessarily inactive, but it’s deeply retrospective. The blood rarely pumping with particular vigor, it’s mostly a cerebral experience.

I Am My Own Wife is a play worth seeing. Doug Wright’s exploration of the life of Charlotte von Mahlsdorf is an appropriate balance of admiration, awe, and doubt. Nick Garrison manages his cornucopia of personae commendably, and is guided well by the directorial hand of Jerry Manning. Jennifer Zeyl’s scenic design, featuring a loud whisper of the Berlin Wall, which eventually reveals a delightful surprise within, is consistent with the leanness of the production as a whole. The performance has been extended through March 10th. It won’t answer all of the questions it poses, but it will give plenty to chew on and wonder about.

Wednesday through Sunday at 7:30 p.m., Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2:00 p.m., through March 10 // Seattle Rep, 155 Mercer Street // $22 – $59, tickets available here

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