I Am My Own Wife by Doug Wright. Directed by Andrew Volkoff.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
“These things, they are proof of its history. And so you must leave it.”
Doug Wright’s Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winning one-man play, “I Am My Own Wife,” now on view in Pittsfield, MA at the new Stage Two for Barrington Stage Company turns out to be a mystery play, and not just a tour-de-force for a brilliant male actor. Untrue to the hype that has preceded it to town, this is not a play about makeup and drag. It is not about a man who avoids deportation or worse at the hands of the Nazis by masquerading as a woman. It is about man whose life has been lived as a transvestite, as the woman he felt himself to be from an early age. But more than that it is about a person whose life, well-known and openly lived, contains secrets and distinctly different stories, tales about himself, herself, that may only be true to a degree. It is about someone whose public identity may have never been real.
Politically Lothar Berfelde was clearly not a Nazi, but may have been a Communist collaborator in East Berlin. As a child in East Prussia, excluded from his Nazi father’s influence, he discovered a secret identity within himself and he began to take comfort in his appearance in girl’s clothing. In this he was encouraged by his aunt, who was also a cross-dressing person, a Lesbian who saw in her young nephew more than instantly met the eye. We do not know how his mother, sister and brother dealt with this aberration. We only know they existed. That’s what the play tells us, nothing more.
The play tells us that Lothar, already calling herself Lotte, murdered her father through the fear that he would kill his own son. What the play doesn’t clearly tell us is that Lothar spent the balance of the Nazi years in a prison for disturbed children. It doesn’t tell us that the father forced his son into the Hitler Youth organization. It doesn’t tell us much about the growing up of the boy turned girl. Much of this information is left to our imagination or research.
It does introduce us to a woman, born a man and still biologically a man, who has developed a personal strength that doesn’t even require the intimacy of a relationship. When confronted with a handsome man who clearly wants to have sex, kinky sex which appeals to Charlotte, he turns down this offer to meet with a clockmaker who has possession that she wants for her growing collection. As she describes her interests later in the play they are prioritized as “Museum. Furniture. Men.” in that order. This is who Charlotte von Mahlsdorf really is from beginning to end.
In turning 500 pages of interviews with her into a play, Wright has constructed a story of a love affair never consummated, his own with his subject. She is considerably older than the author and the love is not sexual. It is a love of subject matter. Wright, the character, tells his best friend that he has to believe her version of the truth and not the logical explanations presented in government documentation if he wants to write about her honestly. He has fallen in love with her history as she tells it. He believes her versions of tales utterly and without comment. He has helped to immortalize a woman who never existed in reality, but only in her own reality.
It is clear that everyone she meets understands that she is a man in woman’s clothing. Everyone accepts this fact, some without judgement, some with harsh comment, catcalls and threats, but still accepting it. The childhood photo of Lothar shown at the end of the play would indicate that, at least when Charlotte was a teenager and probably in her twenties would have been pretty enough to pass and to engage the love interest of many men. But we never really see that Charlotte. We know her as an older woman, a woman will die before a satisfactory conclusion can be found by the playwright to answer the riddles of this woman’s life.
The very talented Vince Gatton plays Charlotte, Lothar and about forty other people in this play, just as he did in his last two appearances in Pittsfield for Barrington Stage in the play “Fully Committed.” He trades stances, voices, accents rapidly and makes each character as specific as possible. Sometimes his transitions from one to another are abrupt rather than melding, but he does them all so well it almost doesn’t matter.
Andrew Volkoff, who has worked with Gatton before, has taken his characters onto a carousel and with each accelerating full circle has introduced more and more interesting physical elements into the performance. He is aided by a fine set designed by Brian Prather, a simple but workable costume designed by Jacob A. Climer and a somewhat too busy set of light cues created by Scott Pinkney. Paul Eric Pape’s miniature furniture is wonderful. One odd note in the sound design was hearing a Kurt Weill song sung by Lotte Lenya, written in 1943 in America in German – “Und was bekam die Soldaten Weib?” played on an Edison Cylinder which would date from no later than world war one. Note to the designer Matt Kraus – some people know, and notice, these things.
The most important thing to know about this production is that has humor, it is moving and it is a sometimes sterile look at a subject matter that is not comfortable for most people. Opening night the audience was silent, non-responsive to what was clearly funny due, I think, to a lack of compatibility with the material, the subject matter. It is a play that will set you thinking about your own reality, your own stories and your secrets. It may set you investigating the things you know, that you remember so well, finding that other points of view exist that can knock your personal version of your own story into a cocked hat. Your mysteries may be the same ones as Charlotte von Mahlsdorf – who did what to whom and when. And why.
Vince Gatton as Charlotte von Mahlsdorf; photo: Kevin Sprague
Vince Gatton as Charlotte; photo: Kevin Sprague
I Am My Own Wife plays at Barrington Stage Company’s Stage Two, located at 36 Linden Street (on the corner of Center Street) in Pittsfield, Massachusetts through June 8. PerformancesTuesday through Friday at 7:30PM, Saturday at 8PM, Sunday at 3PM. Prices range from $25-$30. For information or reservations please call the box office at 413-236-8888