BWW Preview: I AM MY OWN WIFE Presents the Struggle for Identity and Survival
Completely appropriate for the current social climate in which the push to perpetuate LGBT rights and normalize LGBT culture is gaining momentum, Ensemble Theatre Company presents a profound and striking portrayal of identity struggle--both on the macrocosmic level of the European upheaval of yesteryear and the microcosmic level of one person, Charlotte von Mahlsdorf. In Doug Wright's I Am My Own Wife, seasoned actor John Tufts presents von Mahlsdorf as an elegant lady-about-Germany--who lives an openly "alternative" lifestyle despite the cultural oppression of both the Nazi regime and the Eastern Bloc secret police.
Based on the true story of Charlotte von Mahlsdorf (born Lothar Berfelde), I Am My Own Wife is the Pulitzer- and Tony-winning production about a transvestite of repute living amidst the chaos of wartime and post-war Communist Germany. I Am My Own Wife is an ambitious one-man show that presents Charlotte as a bold and colorful example of living an authentic life in the face of extreme oppression. However, the story isn't a single narrative: Tufts, a member of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival Company, portrays Charlotte as well as a menagerie of associated characters. Tufts' performance tells the story of Charlotte's unlikely and unconventional history from various points of view.
"I've never done a one-person play before," Tufts says of his roles in Ensemble's Production. "I wanted to start at the heart of the play, not with a handful of pages." For this role, Tufts researched not only the lives of the characters, but also the era in which they lived. Set against the historical backdrop of the fall of the Berlin Wall, Tufts' research extends to the truth about gay and trans culture and how it was perceived in that period. This history will be well represented through the character of Charlotte and her fascinating story. "I'm so glad to be an actor in the era of YouTube," Tufts says. "It has put obscurity at arm's length!" Tufts dug into this role with the enthusiasm and fervor necessary to suitably equal the passion of Charlotte, herself.
Charlotte is an entertaining and eccentric woman whose tale is poised with humor and pathos--a relatable character telling an extraordinary story. Charlotte's life is not only marked by surviving political upheaval and an oppressive cultural landscape; it also involves escaping a violent, intolerant family life. The various characters played by Tufts throughout this production give a unique view of life throughout the chaotic eras of twentieth-century Germany: world wars, cultural occupations, and the fall of the Berlin Wall.
"One of the basic challenges when approaching a one-person play that features many characters is distinguishing each one," Tufts says of his work to differentiate the many people he plays in this show. "In a play with so much humanity, I wanted to work very hard to make sure this wasn't a production about how many different voices I could do." Tufts clarifies that especially because he doesn't speak German, "vocal pyrotechnics" were not a viable option for characterization. Tufts also emphasizes that portraying the dire tribulations of these characters through vocal nuances alone (rather than developing actual representations of people) would be a disaster. Tufts and director Jenny Sullivan expended much consideration and effort on creating each character as well as choreographing smooth transitions between points of view.
As Charlotte's story unfolds, the unavoidable implication of the necessary sacrifices involved in survival lurks as a sinister theme. Charlotte was more than a transvestite socialite of minor celebrity--she was a person who lived an uncommon (and, at the time, undesirable) lifestyle in an era before the spread of LGBT rights. Questions about Charlotte's survival tactics abound, and the dark underbelly of what it takes to endure in dark times is introduced as an inexorable aspect of Charlotte's tale.
Tufts is fascinated by theatrical characters who exhibit the contradiction of confidence and vulnerability. "My favorite characters in all of theater are those great women's roles," Tufts says. "Blanche in Streetcar, Gertrude in Hamlet, Lady MacB, and Amanda Wingfield (The Glass Menagerie). They are powerful and confident, and defined on the surface by their eccentricities. Yet, deep down they are intensely vulnerable, and even a bit clouded by self-denial. Charlotte exists rightly in the company of these women. She is unapologetic, yet full of regrets."
Artistic Director Jonathan Fox agrees that this production is a portrayal of an extraordinary human thriving in a confusing and dangerous time. Doug Wright's award-winning play has been recognized for it's raw veracity and intense honesty, and lauded for maintaining the humor, hints of gossamer beauty, and flashes of joy that push characters forward, even in the darkest of times, to find meaning in their (and our) humanity.
Ensemble Theater Presents:
I Am My Own Wife
By Doug Wright
Featuring John Tufts
Directed by Jenny Sullivan,
February 4 through 21, 2016.
At The New Vic, 33 WEST VICTORIA STREET