By Eric Marchese
There’s something inherently spellbinding about any one-person stage show in which the actor performs an entire script and tells a story solo, morphing into and out of a variety of characters.
That gives plays like “I Am My Own Wife” an almost built-in appeal. How will an actor fare in bringing playwright Doug Wright’s script to life? Will he be credible as the lead character, Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, or in portraying the various personalities who populated the German woman’s world?
The play’s Orange County premiere opening at Laguna Playhouse this weekend reteams director Jenny Sullivan and actor John Tufts, the duo who created Santa Barbara-based Ensemble Theatre Company’s production last February.
Wright adapted von Mahlsdorf’s 1992 autobiography, with the fall of the Berlin Wall as its backdrop. It’s told from her perspective as an elegant, eccentric 64-year-old woman. The play premiered Off-Broadway in 2003 and opened on Broadway later that year, garnering Wright the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.The story starts in east Germany in the 1930s, where Max Berfelde and Gretchen Gaupp were raising their son, Lothar Berfelde.
Lothar identified with being a girl even from a young age, causing tension with his father. In 1942, Max, a member of the Nazi Party, forced the 14-year-old to join the Hitler Youth. The duo’s already stormy relationship grew lethal in 1944, when Max physically attacked his son. Lothar struck back, killing him.
The teen was sentenced to four years of detention but released from jail at the end of the war. Soon, Lothar became “Lottchen” and, eventually, he began to go by the name Charlotte. He completed his new identity by replacing the surname Berfelde with the name of his hometown of Mahlsdorf.
Von Mahlsdorf might have thought the ordeal of a father’s brutal mistreatment or the terrors of the Nazi regime were the worst life could dish out – but the ruthlessness of the postwar East German secret police posed further hurdles and challenges to self-discovery, self-actualization and possible happiness.
Director Sullivan, who has credits stretching from New York City to Manitoba, said “the thing that’s really important when people see this is that it’s a true story. This is a real person who was not born a woman but who lived as a woman in the world of the Nazis and of the communists, and survived.”
The play “is the story of a young boy finding that his female side was the person he wanted to live as – which he did, in a really dangerous world.”
Sullivan calls the play’s story “dynamic” and the play itself “a really active piece. We don’t just sit around and talk.
“Many people think one-person shows must be easy, but they’re really more difficult – just the amount of energy and attention it takes to keep the focus on the material and telling the story.”
With “Wife,” she said, we have “one man playing more than 30 roles – men, women, children, young people, old people.” The challenge in directing it is “having a clear eye of how to keep telling the story as we move along through the play.”
“Fortunately,” she said, “I’m working with a truly brilliant actor.” She praises Tufts as “the ultimate craftsman, so clear about what the challenge is, of making all these different characters pop.”
Tufts, who has logged 12 seasons with Oregon Shakespeare Company, said that without clear delineation via acting and direction, “the audience can get lost and confused” as to who the actor is portraying at any given moment, making it “essential to create a basic level of clarity.”
The actor said it’s up to him “to create a physical vocabulary” for each of the 36 characters in “I Am My Own Wife.” “Each must have a distinct vocal quality and physical gestures that the audience can understand.”
Once he has cleared the technical challenge of creating that psychological equivalent of muscle memory, Tufts said the next level of the process is to immerse himself into each character with the goal of losing himself and his own identity in favor of the character’s.
Tufts said he’s had the advantage of being able to study von Mahlsdorf’s voice, behavior and physical mannerisms through a wealth of internet sources that contain film footage of her and interviews with her from news broadcasts. He also studied the feature film “Charlotte,” filmmaker John Edward Hays’ 2009 documentary of von Mahlsdorf’s life.
Tufts stresses that what makes von Mahlsdorf’s story remarkable, and makes it “essential that this be a one-person play,” is the fact that she had to create new personalities to ward off peril “merely in order to be able to survive. She had to do all sorts of things, and be all sorts of things.”
The actor, director and design team decided to eschew the use of female makeup for Tufts in favor of keeping him in designer Alex Jaeger’s costume: a simple long dress, a kerchief and a string of pearls. Sullivan said star Tufts “doesn’t change clothes” when changing character. “He goes from man to woman in a heartbeat; that grabs our attention right away and keeps it.”
While in a movie, “you go to a closeup” for emphasis, Sullivan said that in Laguna the action is framed via what she terms “really magnificent scenic, sound and lighting design” (by, respectively, Keith Mitchell, Christopher Moscatiello and Pablo Santiago, all carryovers from Santa Barbara).
“I Am My Own Wife,” Sullivan said, “is about our paying attention to people who are other than us” and that the tale it weaves “has become ever more provocative” since the contours of the LGBTQ world have changed so dramatically, especially in recent years.
,.Sullivan characterizes von Mahlsdorf’s life story, the published account of it, and now, the live play, as “a deeply profound story, a story of survival.”
Tufts calls von Mahlsdorf’s feats in the name of survival “astonishingly remarkable. It takes bravery and strength for a trans-person to live now, today, in our times.” By contrast, von Mahlsdorf, “lived under extraordinarily difficult circumstances and navigated a path in so highly restricted a society, which is more than eye-opening. It’s inspiring.”