"I Am My Own Wife": Truth proves elusive in tale of Berlin transvestite
ArtsWest presents "I Am My Own Wife," starring Nick DeSantis, through June 1, 2008; reviewed by Misha Berson.
Seattle Times theater critic
"I Am My Own Wife"By Doug Wright, plays Wednesdays-Sundays through June 1 at ArtsWest, 4711 California Ave. S.W., Seattle; $10-$29 (206-938-0339 or www.artswest.org).
Theater Review |
There is something you should know about Doug Wright's Pulitzer Prize-honored play "I Am My Own Wife."
Its main character, the East Berlin antique collector Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, was a real person and her story is true.
Ah, but there's the rub. As the axiom goes, truth is usually the first casualty of war.
World War II and the Cold War are the backdrop for Wright's fascinating 2003 Broadway play, now in its laudable, if slow-moving, Seattle debut at ArtWest.
An ingenious study of the slippery nature of truth, mythmaking and profoundly disturbing aspects of 20th-century German culture (as well as human nature), "I Am My Own Wife" reveals its indomitable main character through several prisms.
We first meet this eccentric Berlin transvestite (played by resourceful Seattle actor Nick DeSantis, as are the play's several other roles) as a gay writer's dream date.
Oddly and dowdily garbed in accessorized nun's drag (black dress, head scarf, strand of pearls), Charlotte is the prim, gracious mistress of a private museum. Wright's eagerness for this quirky person to be an appealing dramatic subject, and a gay heroine, match up with Charlotte's own image of herself.
In excerpts from a series of interviews Wright conducted with her between 1992 and 1994, Charlotte (born Lothar Berfelde) recalls a youth defined by brutal encounters with an abusive father and marauding Nazis, and welcome support from a lesbian aunt.
Von Mahlsdorf's endurance as an open transvestite under fascism as deadly for gay people as it was for Jews, is remarkable. That also goes for "being herself" under East Germany's homophobic Communist regime.
But there's more to Charlotte, as Wright learns after the collapse of a state strangling in paranoia and internal espionage. And when her less-noble aspects surface, the veracity of everything Wright (and we) think we know about Charlotte is up for grabs.
This twisting ambiguity gives "I Am Own Wife" a bracing moral, historical and theatrical knottiness. As Bertolt Brecht might have, Wright ultimately finds in Charlotte's survival saga compromise, opportunism and tenacity. Neither villain nor hero, she was a "living, breathing illustration" of modern history.
The play offers a tour-de-force opportunity to the right actor. And DeSantis (under Christopher Zinovitch's direction) fills the bill admirably.
DeSantis is more robust and has darker features than the real Charlotte (shown briefly in archival photos), who died in 2002. Yet in voice and gesture, he expresses her dainty femininity tinged with coyness, and switches adeptly into other parts: the excitable Wright, or Charlotte's misused friend Alfred.
Only fluent German speakers will know for sure, but DeSantis seems to handle a daunting amount of German dialogue impressively (with assistant director Beth A. Cooper as dialect coach).
Most crucially, the ArtsWest veteran leaves us with an array of mixed emotions toward Charlotte — from sympathy to disgust.
But Zinovitch's handsome staging really does need to pick up the sluggish pacing. Otherwise, it prospers from Will Abrahamse's treasure-box set and Andrew D. Smith's deft lighting, which dynamically reveal the bric-a-brac of Charlotte's past — antique lamps and clocks and symbolic clothing (designed by SuzAnne Fabricus).
Both Seattle Repertory Theatre and the now-defunct Empty Space Theatre had plans to debut "I Am My Own Wife" earlier. But when the chance arose, ArtsWest snapped up the script.
With DeSantis front and center, that ambitious move is paying off. Some fine-tuning of the tempo should only make the show better.
Misha Berson: email@example.com
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company
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