By Michael Quintos
There are certainly plenty of fascinating, true-to-life stories being shown on screens and stages on a regular basis everywhere, but Doug Wright's 2003 Tony Award-winning play I AM MY OWN WIFE---which was also bestowed with the Pulitzer Prize---is arguably one of the most gripping, surprisingly engrossing plays acted out by a single actor playing over 30 characters that you'll possibly ever experience in a theater.
Featuring a remarkable, awards-worthy, tour-de-force performance by actor John Tufts that will easily win you over no matter what your personal tastes or beliefs or politics may be, this admirable new regional production---beautifully directed by Jenny Sullivan---continues performances at the Laguna Playhouse through January 28. Emotional, spiritual, and impressively staged, the play is one of these unique theatrical experiences that genuinely deserves your attention.
A compelling overview of a truly unique, far-from-the-mainstream individual, I AM MY OWN WIFE is centered on the real-life story of Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, a sweet-voiced, aging transvestite from East Germany whose life, remarkable enough, has shown an unrelenting tenacity to overcome the extreme struggles that one would expect to pummel someone who is "different" like her.
Born in 1928 as Lothar Berfelde in Berlin, the sweet young boy would eventually grow up to wholeheartedly and unapologetically embrace the femininity that has always been embedded in her soul.
In her boyhood, she had to overcome being forced to join the Hitler Youth movement by her Nazi father Max. Later, she had to endure the break up of her parents' rocky marriage that found her mother Gretchen whisking young Lothar and her siblings to East Prussia, where Charlotte forms a kindred bond with her lesbian Aunt Luise, who encouraged Charlotte to be as free to be as who she wanted to be. This emboldened confidence certainly helped in shaping the kind of resolute person she continued to be all her life.
In 1944, tasked to help her father back in Berlin, Charlotte is attacked by her father, causing her to kill him, allegedly, in self-defense. A year later, she is sentenced to four years in prison but serves only two months (!) of it after being released early as chaos rains on Germany that would eventually cause its split at the end of World War II.
Freed from prison and seeing a new lease on life, she begins to live openly feminine on a more regular, unhidden basis---wearing long hair and putting on dresses and other female-centric frocks. Her love of the finer things later manifests into a life-long obsession with antiques, particularly furniture and appliances from the previous century. Her collection eventually becomes a featured attraction of her own home, the Mahlsdorf Manor House, which she converts into a museum.
"You must save everything... as is," she insists, perhaps a roundabout parallel to her own knack for self-preservation.
So, yes, Charlotte witnesses her homeland first overpowered by the Third Reich and then, later, succumb to the influences of communism. Neither, of course, are exactly the most welcoming environment for a femme-leaning boy who later lives full-time as a woman---yet, despite the odds, she not only survived, she thrived... living quite comfortably for the most part and even opening up her home to the gay community.
And talk about tenacity: even when the East German authorities seizes control of her home-slash-museum to curb such gatherings and activities, she eventually wins in court to get it back.
So... wow... this pioneering gender-bender not only managed to survive the Nazis and the Gestapo, she also somehow managed to survive life amongst the Stasi, the East German secret police---and doing so as herself. Is there possibly something she's leaving out of her story?
As the Berlin Wall is toppled in the Fall of 1989, Charlotte's notoriety in the Western world finally sees the light. Unfortunately she later leaves the country after Neo-Nazis destroy her estate. Her efforts, though, don't go unnoticed: she is honored with a Ribbon of Merit for Service to West Germany and, later, her autobiography is published followed by a documentary film about her life.
All of this and more are slowly yet poignantly relayed in the play, which begins in 1993 from the point of view of the playwright himself, Doug Wright, about to meet Charlotte for the first time after some back-and-forth correspondence. Charlotte's captivating narrative, Wright feels, is ripe to be fashioned into a play---yes, the very one being viewed on this very stage.
Just as we hear Charlotte's story primarily told via first-person accounts from Charlotte herself, Wright also offers his personal take on his investigative visits with Charlotte via first-person monologues and phone conversations towards the audience, too. While it may seem a little self-serving at first, I quickly warmed to the idea of Wright including his doubt-filled investigative process into the story, even if it means having himself show up as a "main" character.
In between Charlotte and Wright, we are also treated to recreated conversations and interactions and supposed confessionals from many of the people that have come in and out of Charlotte's life. As each character comes to the forefront to tell their part of her story from their own points-of-view, what we are presented with is a unique, multi-layered tale that is incredibly farfetched yet wonderfully down-to-earth.
Listening to Charlotte regale us with even the minutia of gramophone manufacturing proves to be an unexpected treat, because it is told from a place of pure love for something that brings her joy. But, also however, the journey that has led Charlotte to this moment when we meet her is so fantastical that it's not a surprise that we, along with Wright himself, are left wondering where truth ends and where hyperbole begins. Did she fudge some of the details? Perhaps. But are the absolute truths essential in corroborating her awesomeness?
And, yes, every single individual is played with superb agility and defined nuance by Tufts.
Dressed mostly in a demure house dress designed by Alex Jaeger adorned with pearls, Tufts effortlessly transforms from the German-accented soft-spoken sweetness of Charlotte to the manic inquisitiveness of American writer Wright with seamless ease (despite staying mostly in the same frock throughout). Every distinct character that magically appears before us speaks their truths (or, well, maybe half-truths or exaggerations) directly to the audience and it is fascinating to watch unfold as her story's layers get peeled and re-stacked and re-peeled again. Tufts' performance forces you to hang on to every single word any given character he is portraying at the time utters.
Who wouldn't want to sit and just listen to such a remarkable story told directly from the person who lived it?
Tuft's incredible performance is, of course, deftly aided by Pablo Santiago's striking lighting design (which at times aids in the transitions between characters), Keith Mitchell's beautifully and artfully antiqued set design, and Warren Casey's gorgeously curated collection of props, most of which are suspended from the ceiling like pieces of jewelry frozen in time. Visually, these elements mirror the timeless beauty that Charlotte so desperately wants to preserve. Her upscale hoarding may be rooted in highbrow tastes, but it is, of course, still hoarding...hinting at, perhaps, a mental disorder disguised as compensation for not truly feeling loved and appreciated for her truthful, outward expression. Old objects, to her, are still beautiful and deserves to still be treasured---even though they have been cast aside.
It is this duality that makes Charlotte so inspirational and yet perplexing at the same time. And Tufts is quite masterful in showing that these two aspects can exist harmoniously in her personality.
Sadly, Charlotte died in 2002 at the age of 74---just a year before the play made its off-Broadway debut and two years before its triumphant award-winning Broadway bow---denying this beautiful soul a chance to revel in the adoration of those cheering on her life story. But part of me likes to imagine that she is basking in the show's continued success, smiling from afar, surrounded by the ghosts of the objects she truly loves.
Photos from I AM MY OWN WIFE by David Bazemore, courtesy of Ensemble Theatre Company.