This is the root of Charlotte von Mahlsdorf’s story: ”I am a transvestite.” Brave words, even now. Imagine saying them in Germany during the rise of the Nazi regime and later under Communist rule.
This act of bravery is what first piqued playwright Doug Wright’s interest in 1992 when he learned of Mahlsdorf through a childhood friend. Sensing a tale of unparalleled moxie, self-fulfillment, and stage-quality, Wright risked almost everything in an attempt to capture her story. The question remains however, how much of it is just a story?
Charlotte’s life has been captured in Wright’s Tony Award-winning, one-man show, I Am My Own Wife, which ultimately combines his story with hers. Arnie Burton tackles the challenging role for the Olney Theatre’s production with gusto. His energy and obvious determination to perfect the many parts he must assume helps redeem any of the slips he makes during the performance.
The structure for I Am My Own Wife was inspired by MoisÃ©s Kaufman, who used a similar tactic in his play about the Matthew Shepard murder, The Laramie Project. In both productions, the playwright appears as a character in the play, living through the experience along with the audience. It’s a fascinating tool for a writer to use for two reasons. One, it becomes a joint experience — an adventure that is traveled together by both the guide and the audience. Second, it becomes less about the subject of the play and more a blueprint for what you’re supposed to take away from the story.
It took Wright more than 10 years to complete his play — primarily because his plans were thwarted when he discovered that Charlotte was an informant for the Stasi, East Germany’s secret police. As he readily admits, gone was his gay hero, his icon for the community, his muse who defied expectation to live by her own rules. It was not until he decided to tell his own tale of discovering Charlotte did he find his way.
It’s a path that meanders slowly towards an end. The play itself is an odd combination of mixed mediums, theatrical devices and abstract moments. It feels like a story with a strong end and a strong beginning, but weak moments in between for which overcompensation is required. As a one-man play, however, I Am My Own Wife has become a coveted role for actors who will either make or break the production.
To his credit, Burton makes this production. Assuming more than 40 roles during the course of the show, he only once changes costume to aid in the switch. For the rest, he’s clad in Charlotte’s customary simple black dress and relies only on his body to transform from one person to the next. As Charlotte, Burton perfects a sly, slightly wide-eyed gaze that is equally playful and maniacal. There is never any doubt when he is Charlotte — there is only doubt as to what is going on behind those eyes.
|I Am My Own Wife
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For the other roles, it can be slightly more challenging to discern his identity. As the gay playwright, he throws an extra swish into his mannerisms; for Wright’s childhood friend, he affects a booming Southern accent. The others are an odd array of accents and gesticulations, but since none of the characters are around for more than a couple minutes, it’s generally enough to know when he’s not one of the principal parts. Burton is to be commended for his thick German accent and bilingual turn of the tongue. Though the accent slips when he reaches Charlotte’s emotional crescendos, it quickly returns after the next breath.
By the end of the play, it becomes apparent why Wright has to be a character in his own show. Charlotte’s story isn’t strong enough — or clear enough — to carry it alone. Ultimately, the story is Wright’s and his search for something to believe in. Charlotte, regardless of the truth behind her past, becomes the metaphor for an elusive dream, be it someone to admire, someone to emulate, or someone to show us the way.