BWW Review: Coachella Valley Repertory's I AM MY OWN WIFE is Another Must-See
Coachella Valley Repertory (CVRep), in Rancho Mirage, and its artistic director Ron Celona, have scored another coup with I AM MY OWN WIFE, the slightly fictionalized story of German gay rights activist and antique collector Charlotte von Mahlsdorf. Actor Vince Gatton brings her to life, along with more than thirty other characters, in a brilliant one-person show that I consider a must-see.
Charlotte von Mahlsdorf was a real-life Hedwig, who managed to survive as what she called a transvestite as a teenager in Nazi Germany and, later, under the homophobic East German regime. Charlotte, a walking museum, managed to preserve a houseful of antiques under both regimes, and to set up a gay bar in her basement, reconstructed from one that the Communists closed. When Germany reunited, she received the Medal of Honor from the German government. The medal became the subject of controversy after Stasi files revealed that she had collaborated with the repressive East German security force.
Playwright Doug Wright interviewed Charlotte on numerous occasions between 1992 and 1994, and corresponded with her until her death in 2002. While the subject matter is serious, and the playwright raises numerous moral questions, the play is funny. Audiences will find themselves laughing with Charlotte, and in some cases, at her. What makes the laughter light-hearted when Charlotte is the target is that it she is so obviously in on the joke. For example, when Charlotte, deadpan, announces that she is transvestite, as if her skirt and pearls did not give it away, the audience guffaws.
Charlotte is no outrageously-garbed drag queen. She dresses simply, in a black outfit, with a black scarf on her head and an apron, with pockets. A quick glance could cause someone to mistake her for a nun, or a female Chasid. Mr. Gatton uses no wigs or makeup, and yet manages to look female.
Whenever a one-actor play involves multiple characters - especially characters of both sexes, different accents, and multiple ages - there is a danger that the actor will blur them together. Instead, the audience can easily tell the difference even between the two American southern men - the playwright and his childhood friend - in part because Mr. Gatton moves around energetically to change location when different characters speak. His Charlotte sounds female, speaking in a higher-pitched voice than many women. Mr. Gatton's German accent when speaking English is perfect, and from what I can tell as a speaker of American English, his German sounds perfect.
It is not only Mr. Gatton's voice that changes when he switches to another character, or when Charlotte's age changes. The actor's facial expressions, his posture, and his gait all help the audience to determine who is speaking, even though all the voices come through Mr. Gatton's mouth.
The visual elements of the show are extraordinary. Jimmy Cuomo, set designer, does his usual superb job in a set that differs from the permanent set that Mr. Cuomo usually adapts. This one represents a room that does double duty as a parlor in Charlotte's home and a room in her museum. It has double doors, dark wood paneling, wooden bookcase-style shelves holding pieces of her collection. The room looks old-fashioned and European, but it seems warm and inviting. Charlotte loves her collection; her voice becomes wistful and mellifluous when she talks about it.
The lighting (designed by Moira Wilkie), and the sound (designed by Randy Hansen) contribute to the atmosphere. For example, the lighting is dark in the basement, where Charlotte has rebuilt the closed gay bar, and where she invites gay men and lesbians to socialize. Mr. Hansen perfectly duplicates the sound of the scratchy Edison phonograph cylinders that Charlotte loves so much.
Finally, the play is worth attending for another reason: It provides the perspective of German citizens living under Nazism. It reveals that Germany treated its loyal Aryan citizens similarly to other governments (such as by providing juvenile detention facilities for teenaged offenders). In one of Charlotte's anecdotes, she described how the Germans drafted old men and young boys towards the end of the war, and those out of uniform could be shot as deserters. Charlotte was captured and escaped a firing squad when an officer told his men that Germans had not lost their humanity enough to kill school children. In my opinion, this story underscores how far they had indeed lost their humanity - the citizens of the Third Reich knew how decent people should behave, but simply declined to do so towards the populations they deemed inferior.
The rest of the crew consists of Louise Ross (stage manager), Aalsa Lee (Costume designer), Eddie Cancel (technical director), Doug Morris (design associate and props), Karen Goodwin (sound technician), and Lynda Shaeps (makeup).
I AM MY OWN WIFE will run through March 27, 2016, with performances Wednesday through Saturday evenings, and Saturday and Sunday afternoons. Evening shows start at 7:30pm. Matinees start at 2:00pm.
CVRep is located in The Atrium, at 69-930 Highway 111, Suite 116, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $48 each. See the web site, www.CVRep.org, for more information, or call the box office at 760-296-2966.
In addition to its regular productions, CVRep will hold a special event called GIFT OF LOVE: MUSIC AND STORIES, starring composer and singer Bradley James. The show consists of personal stories and music by Mr. James, based on his time and experiences with Mother Teresa and the Missionaries of Charity. Tickets are $25. Show times are Friday and Saturday, April 1-2, at 7 p.m., and Sunday, April 3, at 2 p.m.
The last 2015-16 regular season production is 4000 MILES, by Amy Herzog (April 20 - May 8, 2016). After suffering a major loss on a cross-country bike trip, 21-year-old Leo moves in with his feisty 91-year-old grandmother. Over the course of a month, these unlikely roommates infuriate, bewilder, and ultimately touch each other's souls.
Tickets for I AM MY OWN WIFE and 4000 MILES are $48 for most performances. See the web site, www.CVRep.org, for more information, or call the box office at 760-296-2966. For group sales, please contact Shari Lipman, box office manager at 760-296-2966, extension 101. Box office hours are Mon-Fri 10:30-2:30, and two hours prior to each performance.
Photo Credit: Sal Mistretta