I AM MY OWN WIFEBy Doug Wright
(Streaming Video on Demand)
Directed by Ashley Puckett Gonzales
Scenic Designer – Brian Clinnin
Costume Designer – Drenda Lewis
Lighting Designer – Ryan Burkle
Sound Designer – Marco E. Salinas
Properties Designer – Hillary Collazo Abbott
Production Advisor – Audrey Schwartz
Production Manager – Jessica Updike
Director of Cinematography – David Singer
Cinematography – Jeremy Bay
Sound Board Operator/Post Sound Engineer – Marco E. Salinas
Scenic Artist – Cameron Casey, Jayson Phillips
Carpenters – Keith Gillespie, John Rawley
Electricians – Ryan Burkle, Allie Butemeyer, Gabe Coleman
Editor & Colorist – Robert A. Cuadra
Starring Bob Hess as Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, Doug Wright, German translator, Alfred Kirshner, Americans soldiers, newscaster, politician, student, Stasi torture victim, Ziggy, reporters, and misc. other characters
Understudy: Nick Moore
Reviewed Performance: 7/17/2020
Reviewed by Ann Saucer, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
At the beginning, Charlotte treats us to a guided tour of the Museum that she runs, lovingly explaining the provenance of antique furniture. Doug Wright, ultimately our playwright, takes the tour, and later writes to Charlotte, candidly explaining that she is the perfect subject for a grant. Doug grew up gay in the Bible Belt, and can only imagine what it was like for Charlotte growing up in the Third Reich.
In 1993, Doug meets with Charlotte in Germany, and dictates copious notes into a handheld tape recorder, one of many period piece props. “Doesn’t look like a drag queen at all,” Doug observes.
Charlotte vividly describes surviving bombs and the S.S. during World War II. Charlotte was dressed in her mother’s coat and wore her blond hair long when she was collected by the S.S. On the Nazi’s interrogatory demanding Charlotte’s gender, “If they shoot me what is the difference between a boy and a girl, because dead is dead?”
For safety, Charlotte (then a boy) and mother leave Berlin and stay with Tante Louisa. Hess reenacts the boy’s playful joy when trying on “girl clothes” for the first time in a raid of his Aunt’s closet. She catches him, and opines that he should have been born a girl and she a boy. Tante Louisa gifts her young nephew with a book on “sexual intermediaries,” a book that is to be his bible.
Before the Nazis’ reign of terror, Charlotte’s childhood presented its own perils in domestic violence. After an altercation with Charlotte’s father, Louisa laments, “it’s a shame I didn’t kill him.” When circumstances of the war force the boy Charlotte to return to his father in Berlin, his father demands fealty. Charlotte, who boasts a life-long habit of carrying keys, escaped a locked bedroom, during the Allied bombing, and later a prison. These exploits are recounted with high energy and occasional splashes of acerbic wit.
Charlotte did find great joy in running a basement cabaret in East Berlin, which she kept secret from the Stasi for thirty years. The communists shut down an historic bar that, as described by Charlotte, “wanted homosexuals. They didn’t get drunk. They didn’t fight. And they always had money to pay for drinks.” Before the place was bulldozed, Charlotte purchased and relocated the contents to her basement.
Charlotte refuses to have a radio or a television, a decision rooted in childhood. Regarding radios: “What was the point? To listen to Hitler babble?” A hard nein to that. She knows her priorities in life: First the museum, second the furniture, and third the men. The dialogue and delivery is frequently hilarious. On what happened when the Neo Nazis vandalized her Museum and attacked partygoers, interrupting the dancing to Donna Summer on the high fi: “The gays were all cowards running inside, but the lesbians stayed to fight.” Hess’s comic timing and earnest delivery of these lines is just perfect.
The violent and tragic return of hate crimes in Germany, which one character somewhat dubiously attributes to disillusioned young people, adds additional food for thought in this intelligent script.
Charlotte was given the Medal of Honor on national German television. But then came the public exposure of her Stasi file, purporting that she was an informant for four years in the mid 1970’s. This makes her a controversial figure, and it also allows the play to explore themes of historical context, the verity of records kept during corrupt regimes, memory, truth, and storytelling as a means of survival. The marvelously shape-shifting Hess cycles through different characters commenting on the scandal, including a girl who flips her hair and observes that a third of the population had some connection to the Stasi; we shouldn’t judge. This and other poignant plot points make this theater experience fertile ground for discussion.
In this play, Hess mostly embodies Charlotte, “Berlin’s most famous transvestite.” He also intermittently plays dozens of other characters and is able to showcase an amazing range of accents. Ultimately the character cast expands to an international assortment of inquisitor reporters. Hess’s portrayal of the smarmy and exuberant German talk show host “Ziggy” is every bit as delightful as Stanley Tucci in the Hunger Games.
The set design is gorgeous, as composed and visually satisfying as a masterpiece oil painting. A stunning art deco door in Robin's egg blue is offset by columns and arches in rose gold and ochre. The versatile design represents a stately stone mansion, a museum, and a prison cell, among other locations. Meticulous props include reproductions of period furniture featured on the tour Charlotte conducts. An old phonograph sits on a delicate doily. The costume is Charlotte’s matronly black dress and pearls, and a cleverly designed prison uniform.
Stylish light projection and sound effects are employed to indicate shifts in location and events. The sophisticated lighting design transforms the space, including everything from a cozy interior to the bright and blinding light of a Stasi interrogation. The space is also frequently awash in shades of gorgeous purple.
The cinematography is professionally executed. If you have attended any of the theater or opera broadcasts at the Angelica, or even remember when Bravo was a respectable network (seriously, it used to broadcast opera and ballet), then you are familiar with filmed live performances. Back when we could assemble with our fellow humans, the main advantages were that you do not have to live in or travel to London or New York, and the tickets (or cable subscription) are cheaper. Done right—and it certainly is here—a filmed live production presents the best of both worlds (and now health benefits). It preserves the stage experience by employing as its anchor a shot of the stage, and then the camera moves closer at strategic intervals, allowing an intimate view of the performer. The cinematography here even gives us a view from the stage at one point, a real treat.
Bravo to WaterTower for bringing live theater to us during these times. Hess is a powerhouse of talent, and his numerous transformations as he cycles through a wide range of characters are thrilling. The play reverberates with weighty themes, and its drama and tragedy are masterfully infused with comic relief. And it was refreshing to reflect that, "I shouldn't complain, I'm not being threatened by the Stasi," or, "it could be worse, I'm not a transgender woman in an S.S. interrogation." You deserve to enjoy Hess's talent, and live theater deserves our support. Buy a ticket.
Streaming Video on Demand July 16, through August 2, 2020
For information and Tickets call 972-450-6232 or go to https://watertowertheatre.org/event/i-am-my-own-wife/2020-07-16#tickets.