I AM MY OWN WIFE: One man, 30+ characters
A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis
Richmond Triangle Players in Collaboration with 5th Wall Theatre
At: The Robert B. Moss Theatre at Richmond Triangle Players, 1300 Altamont Avenue, RVA 23230
Performances: March 8-17, 2018
Ticket Prices: $10-30
Info: (804) 346-8113 or rtriangle.org
I Am My Own Wife is undoubtedly one of the more unusual plays of the season. Written by Doug Wright, the Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winning production is a one-man show about a man living as a woman in East Berlin up to and beyond the dismantling of the Berlin Wall. And it is so much more than that. Scott Wichmann plays all of the more than 30 characters, but the focal point is Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, perhaps one of the most well-known transvestites in history.
Charlotte earned a living as curator of the Gründerzeit Museum – a mansion filled with an eclectic collection of everyday objects, mostly salvaged from war-torn Germany during the time of the Nazi regime. Needless to say, antique bureaus, gramophones, original Edison phonographs, and cuckoo clocks were not nearly as rare as a man wearing a dress in Nazi Germany. The fact that Wichmann does not make an attractive woman is all the more realistic, as by all accounts, Charlotte was not your usual glamorous drag queen, but rather preferred to wear a plain black dress, her own hair – quite white in later years – and a simple string of pearls. As if this isn’t intriguing enough, Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, nee Lothar Berfelde, was a real person (1928-2002).
Wright based his play on a series of interviews he conducted with Charlotte between August 1992 and January 1993. Much of what he discovered was unverifiable or contradicted by written accounts – many of which, themselves, were suspect. The plot thickens with accusations and evidence of Charlottes spying for the Stasi, or German secret police, which stood in stark contrast to her being honored in 1992 with the Bundesverdienstkreuz or Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany for her work in preserving German artifacts. Wright, who wrote himself into the play as one of the dozens of characters, raises questions and leaves his audience to draw our own conclusions.
Wichmann, who has mastered the one-man show with several productions, including the 40+ characters in the wild and witty Totally Committed and a spot-on portrayal of comedian George Burns, has experience with Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, having played this role before, in 2006, with the same director, Morrie Piersol. I did not see that production, but can only assume that both brought new insight, depth, and maturity to the current production.
I Am My Own Wife, a statement Charlotte made dismissively when her mother suggested it was time to marry, is a riveting production, anchored by Wichmann’s razor sharp and eerily effective character transformations. Each character has his or her own distinct voice, accent, facial expressions, posture, and mannerisms. To my wholly inexpert ears, Wichmann’s Texan accent and German phrases sounded quite authentic and I was actually quite pleased with myself at being able to pick out many of the German words and phrases. How so many different people can inhabit one fairly compact body without any physical or visible damage is amazing.
One may choose to agree or disagree with von Mahlsdorf’s lifestyle, one may choose to sympathize with or loathe her decision to become a spy, one may even question Wright’s choices about what to include in the play and what to exclude. Wright states in a program note that he used “somewhat selective remembrances” of his encounters with von Mahlsdorf and took the “customary liberties of the dramatist” in editing the work, but there is no denying that this is a fascinating piece of theater, well cast, and brilliantly executed. The subject is no laughing matter, but there are a few well-placed moments of humor – something the opening night audience seemed not too sure of at first. It could have been due to Charlotte’s enigmatic nature; in describing the reconstructed gay bar in the basement of the manor house, for example, Charlotte/Wichmann says the original owner catered to homosexuals because they didn’t get drunk, didn’t fight, and always had money to pay the bill.
Kudos to Piersol for his unobtrusive direction, to Frank Foster for a simple yet elegant, sharp edged set, Andrew Bonniwell’s subtle lighting, and Lisa Lippman’s plain yet effective costume design. I Am My Own Wife has a very short run – just eight performances – so don’t hesitate it if you think you might want to see it. You won’t be sorry.
Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer, teacher, and writer who was born in Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Eastern Henrico County.
John MacLellan, WomeninEuropeanHistory.org, and RTP website