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By Maggie Yates
In Ensemble's presentation of Doug Wright's I Am My Own Wife, actor John Tufts, as German transvestite Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, does an impressive job of personifying the social and political crisis and evolution in mid-twentieth century East Berlin. Wright's play, ostensibly the story of how eccentric collector Charlotte von Mahlsdorf lived publicly as a woman under the Nazi and the Stasi regimes, is actually a not-quite-autobiography: Charlotte may be the principal storyteller of her own saga, yet the incorporation of other character perspectives gives her story the sense of having been penned by a crowd of incidental (yet imperative) characters--all played by Tufts.
Immediate in the idea of a one-person show is the expectation of a play in the theatrical realm of monologue or biographical character study. Both these systems of storytelling involve a single point of view--even if other viewpoints are integrated, they are still filtered through the solo character or monologist delivering the address. It's rousing when the one person in the one-person show has a strong enough grasp of nuance, both physical and emotional, to perform a story that's multi-character--and even more juicy when that performer is able to successfully distinguish those individual characters from each other. It's an exercise in subtle, yet immediate point-of-view transitions; a narrative that relies on character-perspective gymnastics.
Oregon Shakespeare Festival company member John Tufts brings shrewd wit to the stage as Charlotte, who is both coquettish and brazen in her lifestyle. This keen mastery of credibility gives Charlotte sly appeal as the perpetuator of her own incredible story; it also betrays the possibility of a character whose story is well-rehearsed, marking Charlotte as a woman with an undeniable propensity for survival. Charlotte skillfully sidesteps the oppressive administrations of Germany, though her experience is not completely devoid of strife. However, while labeled by the regimes of the time as a deviant, Charlotte remains dignified throughout the retelling of her story.
Tufts and director Jenny Sullivan worked to conceive the most effective method for character transition (all total, Tufts plays over two dozen characters), and the result is a series of refined and well-choreographed changes in perspective (via character) that is uncannily persuasive. Wright plays with perspective in a complex way in this finely layered narrative; alternate viewpoints portray the universe of the play more fully by showing how other characters interact with Charlotte. Tufts and Sullivan shied away from using "vocal pyrotechnics" to characterize and differentiate this ensemble of questionably reliable narrators; instead, it's the shifts in posture, physicality, and intensity that morph Tufts from Charlotte into someone else with information pertinent to her story.
Ensemble consistently presents impressively rendered stagecraft and physical design, and I Am My Own Wife's narrative arc and character changes were accompanied well by Pablo Santiago's lighting design. The specificity of color and brightness illuminated the mood of each interaction and fluctuation in tension, adding yet another layer of complexity to this theatric experience.
I Am My Own Wife has the urgent sense of ushering the past into the present, especially evident when the playwright, Doug Wright, appears as a character to question Charlotte. The dialogue between Wright and Charlotte shakes the assumed veracity of Charlotte's saga--perhaps every perspective the audience has taken into account is actually just information filtered through Charlotte. I Am My Own Wife is an intricate assessment of the impossibility of truly impartial perception. A fascinating tale of a wondrous character, Ensemble's production is executed with grace and acuity, and presents an undeniable facet of the human experience: uncertainty.