I AM MY OWN WIFE
by Doug Wright
Vancouver Playhouse Theatre
March 11-April 1
The Playhouse had great success earlier this season with Pamela Gien’s one-woman play, The Syringa Tree, about life in apartheid South Africa. Now it’s presenting Doug Wright’s one-man-who-lived-as-a-woman play about life in Nazi and Communist Germany.
Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winning I Am My Own Wife tells the incredible story of Lothar Berfelde who, as transvestite Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, managed to survive four decades under two murderous German regimes while creating an amazing home museum of antique gramophones, turn of the century furniture, and a fully intact gay and lesbian club that she ran surreptitiously in her basement.
The play also tells of its own creation. The sole actor, Tom Rooney, appears not only as Charlotte but as Wright, an American writer who spent years interviewing Charlotte after the collapse of Communism in the early 1990s and, inspired by her life, turned it into the play we are watching.
Rooney plays three dozen other characters in snippets but Charlotte occupies centre stage. No screaming queen, she’s unaffectedly elegant and old-fashioned, relating her story matter-of-factly in a methodical, softly accented voice. She wears no wig or makeup, only a calf-length black dress, orthopedic shoes, and a double strand of pearls.
Her transvestism encouraged by a lesbian aunt, young Charlotte had to survive a brutal father even before the Nazis. She’s strangely silent about how she managed to avoid the concentration camps but tells a harrowing tale of salvation by a merciful SS officer in the final days of the war.
Most of her biography takes place post-war, under the repressive hand of the Communists, where things turns even more ambiguous. It seems Charlotte may have been an informant for the notorious Stasi, the East German secret police, and far from heroic resistance, her story may actually have been one of complicity and betrayal. Doubts arise about whether she’s told the truth about anything. The play offers no neat resolutions.
The script carefully avoids sensationalizing Charlotte’s story, and Michael Shamata’s production shares its understated quality. When Charlotte describes her collections for us, she illustrates them by pulling match-stick sized furnishings out of the drawers of a doll’s house. Most of John Ferguson’s set remains dimly lit behind a scrim until it spectacularly reveals itself at the end. The mostly empty acting space is shaped by Alan Brodie’s effective lighting.
Rooney’s fine performance is admirably low-key. His Charlotte expresses emotion with a subtle, nervous fingering of her pearls or a flickering, mischievous half-smile. But in avoiding tour de force acting, Rooney also fails to make sharply distinct, much less memorable, any of the multiple characters who people Charlotte’s world.
We’re left with the image of this lone enigmatic man who lived a strange, rich, dangerous life as an ordinary and extraordinary woman.