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BWW Review: I AM MY OWN WIFE at WaterTower Theatre

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BWW Review: I AM MY OWN WIFE at WaterTower Theatre

An American playwright in search of the next great story thinks he's hit the jackpot with Charlotte von Mahlsdorf - a German transgender woman who survived Nazi Germany- but gets much more than he bargained for as he unearths her story and her secrets. As if its unique plot wasn't attention-grabbing enough, I Am My Own Wife is a one-man show: the four main characters and thirty or so minor characters are all played by the stupendously talented Bob Hess. Furthermore, the contents of the play are biographical- the playwright character, Doug Wright, is one and the same as the literal playwright of this show, and the events that transpire are based on his interviews with Ms. Von Mahlsdorf herself. Certainly, the experience of streaming a theatrical production is navigating uncharted territory for even religious theatergoers, but one should not be put off by the prospect. WaterTower Theatre produced a high-quality show with superb camera work that makes home viewing both easy and enjoyable- I commend their creativity and dedication to keeping the magic of theatre alive during a national crisis.

Doug's quest unpacks a whole lifetime of oppression, rebellion, and finding a purpose through it all. As the show opens, we are greeted with Charlotte: a character that is clearly an older man presenting as a woman, dressed in a simple black dress, a black scarf covering her head, and a string of pearls. Charlotte wears no makeup, and no wig- her black garb is rather plain, if not severe. This confident, gently cunning woman immediately begins an animated discourse about her prized possessions: her gramophones. These antique sound machines are just a few of the many curiosities in her antique, or furniture, museum. Her voice comes alive with tenderness each time she speaks of a different beloved object throughout the show.

When the playwright meets Charlotte, he is in awe of her very existence. How did this unconventional woman escape with her life from both the Nazi and Cold War East Berlin regimes? Doug launches himself into understanding her story fully. Between numerous expensive trips to Berlin that he can hardly afford and taking German classes at home, he is the picture of fierce determination. The more he digs, the more questionable findings arise.

From the revelation of patricide to the accusations that Charlotte betrayed a friend to the Stasi- the German secret police- Charlotte's life is hardly without blemish. Nevertheless, Charlotte owns every inch of her life story, and continues to indulge Doug in the telling of her own personal history.

BWW Review: I AM MY OWN WIFE at WaterTower TheatreBob Hess (Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, et al) sets a new standard for versatility in acting. Not only does he showcase mastery of German and American dialects, but he is able to do so while adopting completely different sets of mannerisms for each and every character. Hess' nearly endless transitions (both vocal and physical) between elderly German woman, middle-aged American man, and dozens of others in between, are clean and precise- there is not the slightest hint of sloppiness. The minor characters are given as much attention as the leads, be they Nazi officials, oblivious American soldiers, or a veritable army of international newscasters (and yes, this includes a marvelous exhibition of even more accents, including Japanese and British to name a few). And if the reader has not grasped this part yet, a one-man show essentially means that the actor is delivering a two-hour monologue- an unthinkable feat for most performers. In the majority of shows, an actor uses the lines of other characters as a reminder, or prompt for their own- not so in this play! For the first time in my writing career, Bob Hess makes me regret that it is unacceptable to include emojis in professional writing, because I would very much like to include visual representations of how staggeringly mind-blowing his exquisite performance was!

The set of I Am My Own Wife is both lovely and practical. An elevated stage stands front and center, serving as the museum backdrop. Blue double doors with wrought-iron work sit in the middle of a charming gold and brown wall. Built-in shelves adorn this wall and display the menagerie of von Mahlsdorf's precious antiques. In front of the stage is a simple set of rough-hewn table and chairs to one side, and a multi-purpose pew on the other: At times this pew serves as a bus seat, and at other times the title of each scene is projected onto it. The lighting design for this show was fairly simple: standard warm lighting was used most often, though a cooler, blue light was used effectively during certain flashback scenes.

Ashley Puckett Gonzales produced a beautiful, complicated show so well. One cannot imagine the number of one-on-one hours spent between Gonzales and Bob Hess in a play such as this, but the hard work paid off in spades. Despite the new and unconventional method of building and viewing such a performance, it looked so seamless, and suffered no lack of depth.

I Am My Own Wife is both an exploration and a celebration of a life- albeit a complicated one- well lived. Charlotte is a phenomenal person not merely because she escaped oppression and lived, but because she emerged from oppression a better- and remarkably joyful- person. She was persecuted endlessly for the very thing that made her who she was, and in the end, Charlotte managed to build a simple and fulfilling life for herself. What could be more worthy of praise than that?

Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, I Am My Own Wife is available for online streaming at the WaterTower Theatre website.

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From This Author Kathleen Anwar