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I Am My Own Wife is Theatre at its Best

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I Am My Own Wife is Theatre at its Best
By Olena Ripnick

Doug Wright's I Am My Own Wife
Directed by Jason Southerland

Starring Thomas Derrah
Set Design, Eric Levenson
Lighting Design, John Malinowski
Costume Design, Rachel Padula
Sound Design, Nathan Leigh

Boston Theatre Works presents I Am My Own Wife through October 8 at the Zero Arrow Theatre (

2 Arrow Street, Cambridge
)
Box Office (617)-728-4321 or www.bostontheatreworks.com


Sometimes, the most fascinating stories to unfold on stage are the ones that are true. Fiction is great and all, but nothing can compete with a real character—someone who lived, breathed, and has a truly unique story of their own to tell to the world. Doug Wright's I Am My Own Wife is a perfect example of this. Brilliantly written and excellently staged, Wright's award winning play, which has a Pulitzer, a Tony, and a Drama Desk, among others, to its credit, is an out and out winner and one of the best productions I've seen in the last year.


I Am My Own Wife tells the true story of Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, and East German transvestite who, according to the playwright, "navigated a path between the two most repressive regimes the world has ever known—the Nazis and the Communists—in a pair of heels." Born Lother Berfelde in Mahsldorf in 1928, he murdered his Nazi father, and upon release from juvenile detention in 1943 began to adopt a feminine lifestyle. He took the name Charlotte, homage to his lesbian aunt's murdered lover, and in 1959 took possession of a Mahlsdorf mansion which she reopened as the GründerzeitMuseum to display a vast collection of 19th century furniture and household items. The museum became one of the few gathering places for artist and gay communities in East Berlin under the communists, and in 1971, Charlotte was enlisted as an informant for the Stasi. She was honored with the Federal Service Cross after the reunification of East and West Germany, and in 1995, published her autobiography, I Am My Own Woman in 1995. Negative public reaction to the details in her Stasi file, as well as a neo-Nazi attack on gays and lesbians at her museum, caused Charlotte to move to Sweden in 1997. She died of heart failure in 2002, a year before I Am My Own Wife was staged on Broadway, on the grounds of the GründerzeitMuseum.


It's a story so utterly unique and complex that no playwright could make it up. One could venture to guess that few playwrights could, in fact, do the story justice for the stage. Wright, however, is one of those select few. A veteran of stage and screen writing with Academy Award and Golden Globe nominations for Quills under his belt, Wright tells Charlotte's story through a perfect balance of the serious and the lighthearted. Witty, compelling, and undeniably moving, Wright's script portrays Charlotte's story through the eyes of over thirty different characters—the twist, of course, being that all the characters are played by one actor. In the process of telling Charlotte's story—as Wright is among the characters he portrays in the tale—he gives us a glimpse into East German life from the Nazis and the Communists through the fall of the Berlin wall and beyond. Brilliant writing at its very best, it's no wonder Wright won over a dozen awards for I Am My Own Wife.


Similarly, Boston Theatre Works' production of such a fine piece of art doesn't fail to deliver. From the opening strains of minor piano melodies that set the tone from the moment you enter the theatre—a wonderful black box space with a stage surrounded on three sides by seating—to the final photograph that's on display as you leave, this production, directed by Jason Southerland, is all about detail. The unit set, done solely in black in white with levels to enhance visual appeal. The music, mainly strings and piano, fading in and out at just the right times to complement what's happening on stage. The delicate harmony between shadow and illumination with every lighting cue. The minimal props, placed just in the right spots and used at exactly the right times. The strict costume detail—black shirt, black skirt, black shoes, black kerchief, and a string of pearls. The intricate staging, step for step, telling Charlotte's story. Boston Theatre Works' staging does more than just tell the story—it draws you in. I Am My Own Wife is not merely a show you are watching; it's a show you are experiencing.

And the main man behind that experience is Thomas Derrah, who plays Charlotte von Mahlsdorf—and about thirty other characters as well. Transitioning seamlessly from role to role, switching accents and personas effortlessly, and inviting you into a slice of Charlotte's world, Derrah is a pleasure to watch perform. An A.R.T. company member and veteran of Broadway, Off-Broadway, film, and television, Derrah brings to life every character he's given—among them Doug Wright, a German interpreter, several journalists, a television host, Stasi officers, American soldiers, and Charlotte's friends and family. Acting is a craft, and watching Derrah invest in this performance is like watching a master at work; in short, sheer and utter brilliance.

If there's one thing Charlotte teaches us, it's that life isn't black and white; it's about the shades of grey. That having been said, this production of I Am My Own Wife is a one that everyone should see. This, my friends, is theatre at its very finest.


 

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From This Author Olena Ripnick

Olena Ripnick is a Boston University journalism student and freelance writer whose introduction to the performing arts took place when she was cast as Gretel (read more...)