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Questions of History

ATC's 'I Am My Own Wife' is quietly brilliant

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From behind a door, a man appears, attired in a simple black dress, dark headscarf, clunky shoes and a string of pearls. He faces us silently, hands at his sides, palms outturned. Without a word, he withdraws behind the door.

Soon, the man will reappear with a number of antique objects to show us, but in this first moment, it's the man himself who has been placed on display. And a remarkable item he is: Born Lothar Berfelde in 1928 in a suburb of Berlin, he thought of himself as a woman and lived openly as a crossdresser for decades, surviving the Nazis, then the East German secret police, all the while developing a private museum of furniture from the 1890s.

We'll call this person Charlotte von Mahlsdorf and apply the feminine pronoun, both of which she did for most of her life. What else Charlotte did in her life is a matter of some debate, as detailed in the play I Am My Own Wife, in a quietly brilliant production by Arizona Theatre Company.

The play ran Off and on Broadway about four years ago, and picked up every award short of the Heisman Trophy. Playwright Doug Wright gave it the subtitle Studies for a Play About the Life of Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, and with good reason: This is not a straightforward biographical work, but an account of Wright's effort to grapple with a unique life story told by an unreliable narrator.

Over the years, Charlotte turned a dilapidated mansion in Gründerzeit into a museum of gay '90s German furniture, phonographs and clocks, much of the material salvaged from bombed-out houses during World War II. She even reconstructed in her basement a gay cabaret that had been shut down by the communist government in the early 1960s. Charlotte opened her museum to the public and gave guided tours.

"Some people come to look at me--Ich bin Transvestit," she admits in her quiet, even voice, "but soon, they look at the furniture."

But in each case, what, exactly, are they seeing? Charlotte lovingly describes each item on display; she admits that although one salvaged bust looks like a bronze, it's actually zinc, and thus less expensive. How much about Charlotte is, similarly, not what it appears, aside from the obvious cock-in-a-frock issue? We see her tell her story to Wright, who wants to turn her life into a play, and we hear her apply what can only be described as a lilting monotone to one harrowing story after another: as a teenager, bludgeoning her abusive father with a rolling pin; nearly being executed by the Nazis; being spied on by and then persuaded to collaborate with the Stasi, the German secret police; suffering attacks on her home and her guests by neo-Nazis in the 1990s.

Yet as Wright and others investigate Charlotte's stories and peer into her Stasi file, documentation of these episodes seems scant or even contradictory. What, exactly, was the nature of Charlotte's relationship with the Stasi in the 1970s, particularly her role in the arrest of a friend and fellow collector who was involved in black-market dealings?

Like Fox Mulder investigating paranormal activity, Doug Wright wants to believe. As a gay man, he needs to believe that Charlotte was capable of facing down the Nazis and the Communists in heels. But he realizes he can't write a straightforward, factual stage biography of Charlotte. Thus he makes himself a character in the play, so that the work becomes an account not of Charlotte's story, but of Charlotte telling her story, complete with the telling's ambiguities and contradictions.

And what makes this account even more arresting is that it's brought to us by a single actor portraying Charlotte, Wright and nearly three dozen other characters. In ATC's production, that actor is the sensitive and resourceful Bob Sorenson, working under the keen and humane guidance of director Samantha K. Wyer.

Sorenson had a similar ATC assignment five years ago in the 40-character, one-man comedy Fully Committed, but that show seemed more like a stunt with its whiplash lurches from one hilariously broad characterization to another. In I Am My Own Wife, in contrast, Sorenson's shifts are able to seem more organic and necessary. The differences from one character to the next can be subtle, but they are precise, and Sorenson makes each figure unmistakably unique by altering the pitch and timbre of his voice, his accent, his facial mobility, his body language. He's beautifully packing three seasons' worth of repertory performances into a single two-hour play, and making it seem like the most natural thing in the world.

Sorenson (and Wyer) could pull this off in a black box, but here, they collaborate with an equally skilled production team, with flowing, well textured sound design by Brian Jerome Peterson and subtly shifting lighting by Don Darnutzer. The main costume, by Kish Finnegan, and the scenic design by Kris Stone rely heavily on the Broadway antecedents. The black dress does not make Sorenson look at all feminine, but it does allow him some very restrained grace, even while the three-quarter sleeves make his hands look enormous and masculine (as were Charlotte's). The main set element is what looks like a stone wall supporting a frighteningly steep staircase; periodically, a book or an old phonograph or some other antique item will glow through the wall, the items together constituting a massive cabinet of curiosities, relics of an unusual life.

The items Charlotte has collected may be imperfect specimens, but Charlotte doesn't mind. "A missing balustrade, a broken spindle," she remarks of one piece or another, "these things are proof of its history." Proof of Charlotte's history similarly lies in what is missing, and by the end, against our will, we grow to mistrust Charlotte's narrative. So when all is nearly done, and Wright tells a story about a photograph he receives, we assume it must be some writerly invention; the photograph's symbolism is just too convenient. But then we're given evidence of the photo's authenticity, a moment that caused some of my fellow audience members to gasp. Not that anything shocking was on display; it was simply a gasp of relief and realization that even if the stories told in I Am My Own Wife are not historically accurate, they are emotionally true.

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