On Theater: History is examined in mesmerizing 'I Am My Own Wife' at Laguna Playhouse

By Tom Titus

The theater is never more intriguing than when it zeroes in on a segment of history and uncovers actual incidents from a given period that play like inspired fiction, balancing its characters against the tapestry of a bygone era.

Such is the stuff of “I Am My Own Wife,” the latest production at the Laguna Playhouse which brings to mind the dramatization of “The Diary of Anne Frank.” It’s playwright Doug Wright’s episodic story of his quest to uncover the tale of a German transvestite who survived both the Nazi horrors and the Communist repression which followed.

Wright — who won the Pulitzer Prize, the Tony Award and several other honors for this play — is both creator and primary character in the story, which follows the protagonist through a mesmerizing maze of fantastic, yet apparently accurate, circumstances.

Both Wright and his subject — known as Charlotte von Mahlsdorf but born Lothar Berfelde in 1928 — are played by the same superb actor, as are all the fringe characters in the drama. This would be John Tufts, who both narrates and performs this one-man (woman/person) exercise.

Tufts, methodically directed by Jenny Sullivan, isn’t given the time for lengthy costume changes, so he often enacts Wright while garbed in Charlotte’s long dress and necklace. The contrast is maintained by the heavy German accent he must use as Charlotte while keeping his speech discernible enough for his American audience to comprehend.

This is a tricky theatrical tightrope to negotiate, but Tufts pulls it off splendidly, along with his fleshing out of other characters he must amplify in his role of storyteller. Sexual ambiguity figures prominently in this mission, but not to the point of overcoming the duties at hand.

Sadly, the person at the focal point of the play never lived long enough to enjoy the celebrity. Lothar/Charlotte died in 2002, one year before “I Am My Own Wife” premiered off Broadway.

Charlotte was a dedicated collector of prewar antiquities and these are illustrated as suspended from the upper reaches of her Berlin apartment, a hauntingly effective setting designed by Keith Mitchell. The various old-timey properties involved were nicely created by Warren Casey.

Additional atmospheric touches are fashioned by Alex Jaeger, who designed the dark-hued period costumes; Pablo Santiago, creator of the moody lighting effects, and Christopher Moscatiello, whose ominous sound plot pervades the production.

“I Am My Own Wife” is unlike any other theater piece you’ll encounter this season, a drama bordering on fantasy but rooted in fact. It’s a powerful single-person achievement at the Laguna Playhouse.