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Jefferson Mays in I Am My Own WifeOn Being a Museum
By Robert Brustein

I Am My Own Wife
By Doug Wright
Playwrights Horizons
416 W. 42nd St.
Box office: (212) 279-4200







At Playwrights Horizons, Doug Wright (the author of Quills), Jefferson Mays (an actor trained with Ann Bogart's SITI Company), and Moisés Kaufman (the director of Gross Indecency and The Laramie Project), have all collaborated on a most remarkable piece of political theater called I Am My Own Wife. Based on the life of an actual German transvestite living in East Berlin named Charlotte von Mahlsdorf (born Lothar Berfelde), the play and performance are an extraordinary stroke of theatrical transformation, unquestionably one of the most mesmerizing events of recent seasons.

All that appear at first on Derek McLane's equally transformative set are a grey wooden floor, a facade decorated with tasteless wallpaper, a table, and a wooden chest. A woman enters, wearing a nondescript black dress, orthopedic shoes, and beaded necklace, smiles, begins to speak, disappears and returns toting an old RCA Victor gramophone. She then starts to deliver, in a thick German accent, a learned account of Thomas Alva Edison and "His Master's Voice" ("the most famous trademark in the world") as she places a wax cylinder on the machine and lets it graze the record, producing tinny strains of 1920s jazz.

This woman is Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, and Wright's dialogue is drawn from a number of interviews and letter exchanges the author had with her from the summer of 1992 until her death in 2002. Indeed, Wright, the author, soon makes an appearance on stage, a very gay Southerner also played by Jefferson Mays, who impersonates about 40 characters in all--adults and children, men and women, gays and straights--not to mention such sound effects as an audiotape rewinding. The sense that the play is being written and researched the moment it is being performed lends a certain Pirandellian urgency to the evening. And its political and historical power is provided by a trip through German history in the second half of the 20th Century, as Charlotte endures the dangers and humiliations of being a transvestite under both Nazism and Communism.

She and the rest of the gay community, like European Jews, are the natural victims of right-wing and left-wing German totalitarianism. And the play, in part, is an account of how she "navigated between the two most repressive regimes the world has ever known." But this is not just an exercise in victimology. After a childhood in which she comes under the influence of a lesbian aunt, and later confronts, and possibly murders her brutal father with a rolling pin, Charlotte ends up as a custodian of antique furniture and gimcracks such as old gramophones, grandfather clocks, and miniature armoires, a symphony of junk beautifully played on McClane's artfully littered set.

"She doesn't run a museum," remarks the author's macho friend, John Marks, "she is a museum." And before long, it is clear that all of recent German history resides in this retiring figure. Brecht and Dietrich sat at her table. Most of East Berlin's homosexuals, hounded by the police, found community in her house. And when the Berlin Wall finally falls, she is awarded the Medal of Honor by a grateful nation.

But Charlotte's past is not without stain. She was an informer for the Stasi, and was probably responsible for the imprisonment of another collector, a male homosexual named Alfred Kirschner. (In defense, Charlotte claims that Kirschner urged her to name his name since he was doomed to be caught anyway.) Her credibility under question, threatened now by skinheads rather than by Nazis or Communists ("I have met you before," she murmurs), Charlotte ends her days "in a garden of gramophone horns." The last message Wright receives from her is a photograph a ten-year-old boy, Charlotte as a child, flanked by two tiger cubs poised either to lick or eat their human companion (the audience passes a blowup of the photo in the lobby as it leaves).

As an acting performance, the evening is an electrifying tour de force, its direction is stagecraft of the most exemplary and seamless kind, its writing is spare, elusive, and highly literate. The author can sometimes sound a little frivolous ("Hi, I'm Doug Wright and I'm wearing lace panties"). But like Tony Kushner, he has found a way to use his gay identity as a universal criticism of life.


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