BWW Reviews: Gulfshore Playhouse Marries Hit with I AM MY OWN WIFE

BWW Reviews: Gulfshore Playhouse Marries Hit with I AM MY OWN WIFE

There's not really any way around this. Pulitzer Prize-winning play "I Am My Own Wife" features one man in a dress performing 37 different roles.

If you don't like that sort of thing, leave.

Of course, that would be a grave mistake, because Kraig Swartz will change your life.

Gulfshore Playhouse specializes in smart, thought-provoking theater that Neapolitans can't - and won't - find anywhere else . This tale of a cross-dressing East German man who survived the Nazis and the Communists offers plenty to think - and talk - about. Kristen Coury wouldn't have it any other way. | READ A PREVIEW OF "I AM MY OWN WIFE"

Let's get one thing straight-ish. The show is decidedly NOT about a man in a dress. "I Am My Own Wife" represents far more than the biographical tale of Germany's "most famous tranny granny." "Wife" conjures up a moving fantasia of survival and illustrates the ability of the human spirit to flourish under horribly repressive conditions.

Based on a true story, the play chronicles the transformation of Lothar Berfelde into Charlotte von Mahlsdorf. Audiences see terrifying glimpses of life behind the Iron Curtain, the wonder of a Weimar cabaret and hear the fanatical cackling of East German prostitutes.

Swartz transforms effortlessly between the three dozen-plus characters in the show. He breathes life into each individual, whether it be husky-voiced barmaid Minna Mahlich or swaggering, bravado-filled American soldier. Even a handful of words provides enough to imagine a vivid, intense portrait inhabiting the stage.

The demure, sylph-eyed, self-effacing Charlotte remains both Swartz and the play's greatest creation. The debate of "Wife" might be about the depth of Charlotte's possible involvement with the East German secret police and the brutal choices she had to make to survive. The real beauty of piece lies in its ability to look at how the beauty of art - in any form, be it music, culture, furniture, craftsmanship - contributes to humanity's ability to craft a survival narrative.

A striking, beautiful scene occurs near the end of Act One. As Charlotte describes how she saved Berlin bar from destruction by the Communists, Swartz slowly runs his finger over the tabletop.

"If I could, I would take an old gramophone needle and run it along the surface of wood. To hear the voices. All that was said."

In an instant, a Roaring Twenties cabaret springs to life on stage, conjured by little more than a few words, the play of shadows and the soft tinkle of glasses and jazz. "I Am My Own Wife" is not specifically about the Nazis, the Communists, transvestites or anything perverted or wrong. It is about the remarkable human spirit that spins something beautiful, something graceful, something powerful and alive out of the darkest shadows and the most terrible circumstances.

Jennifer Griffin Minor creates a subtle wash of luminosity that deftly allows Coury and Swartz to tighten focus in places and expand the scope of the story in others. Gabriel Luxton effects a textured soundscape that slides into the show before audiences realize that there is more than a single voice on the stage. Delicate old recordings, bombing raids and more add spice.

"Wife" offers Neapolitan audiences a brilliant piece of theater that they rarely get the chance to see. Vapid musicals and Neil Simon comedies might entertain, but they fail to feed the mind. "I Am My Own Wife" marries smart direction, a bravura performance and top-notch creative work to ensure a spellbinding night of theater.

Chris Silk is the arts writer and theater critic for the Naples Daily News. To read the longer version of this review, go to:

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