Peggy Sue Dunigan

I Am My Own Wife

By - Sep 16th, 2008 02:52 pm
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Photo by Jay Westhauser

A string of white pearls defines the central character, Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, in The Rep’s season opener I Am My Own Wife at the Stiemke Theater. This real-life character, who was born in Berlin in 1928, wears a “black peasant dress, sturdy, in fact orthopedic, black shoes, and a string of pearls.” Charlotte’s given name, however, is Lothar Berfelde, and Charlotte represents the spirit of wit, intelligence, strength and survival as a transgender public figure under two extremely oppressive regimes during her lifetime: the Third Reich and Communist governments.

I Am My Own Wife finds its unique rhythm in Doug Wright’s dramatic structure, as well as the impressive performance of Michael Gotch, who gives each of the over 30 miniature scenes and multiple characters he plays a refined dignity. Capturing Charlotte with a restrained mannerism and underlying respect, Gotch achieves a persona that reveals to the audience the immense hostility and cruelty brought upon individuals during these time periods.

Through these vignettes of Charlotte’s life — as a youth at her Tante Louisa’s home, living in the subculture of Berlin, collecting the relics she considered a record of life, surviving her Stasi involvement as an informant and conversing with Wright as he tries to envision his play — she remains an eccentric individual whose story uncovers abundant treasures that give insight into the human condition. Touched with humor that brings both Charlotte and the audience to smile, her life is a microcosm of meaning for the all of society’s outsiders.

Under Director John Langs, Gotch moves Charlotte through each character and time period seamlessly and effortlessly with only simple props. Scenic Designer Brian Sidney Bembridge, Sound Designer Josh Schmidt and Lighting Designer Noele Stollmack combine their efforts to present the grandeur of Charlotte’s Grunderzeit Museum, which she patiently restored and revived as a historic site, with vintage elegance and surprising effects.

This two-hour play exposes the history of alternative lifestyles and enlightens the questionable facts surrounding the life of a remarkable, solitary person. Whether these are clearly established truths is secondary to the confrontation of atrocities and obstacles and the survival of all persons considered deviating from the normal, less than perfect, or seriously challenged – the “persona non grata.”

This must-see 2004 Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winning play will alter common visions of a string of pearls, refocused through the eyes of a woman who crosses over conventional lines to understand the gender, family and societies she is dominated by. Whether I Am My Own Wife references the World Wars, celebrity, homosexual life or tyrannical regimes, Charlotte Von Mahlsdorf – through Gotch’s superb acting – succinctly puts all in perspective when she reflects on her beloved furniture in the museum. “This is not only decoration, it was used. Show it as is … because everything here is a record of living, of life.” VS

The Rep’s I Am My Own Wife in the Stiemke Theater runs through October 5. For more information call 414.224.9490 or visit The Rep online.

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