I Am My Own Wife is a theatrical example of “Things are not as they seem.”
A little old lady who wears pearls, and runs a house museum in Berlin – well, that’s perfectly normal, right?
As both the audience and one of the play’s characters find out, there is more to Charlotte von Mahlsdorf than meets the eye. I Am My Own Wife is a play based on a true story of a playwright’s interviews in the 1990s with the German transvestite, later forming the play before our eyes at the Street Theatre.
The tale is of American visitor Doug, who thinks Charlotte’s story is an ideal subject for a play, and his character arc begins from awkward ignorant American to a savvy cosmopolitan, who uncovers the dark history behind Charlotte’s life. The interviews between Charlotte and Doug delve back into pre-WW2 realisation of Charlotte, née Lothar’s, early transvestite lifestyle, through to WW2’s dramas and then Charlotte’s survival, if not successes, in East Berlin during the Cold War. So much so was Charlotte’s achievement of preserving gay culture and late 19th century design that she was awarded a state decoration.
I Am My Own Wife comes from a distinguished theatrical history both off and on Broadway, having won two Tony awards and a Pulitzer Prize. Why is this so? The script by Doug Wright is an original gem, presenting the uncut diamond that is Charlotte’s life, which to others for so long shone so brightly. It could so easily have been a gay icon underdog story, but as truth is, everyone good has a dark side, and vice versa.
You don’t need a degree in modern history to get what’s going on in the play; just the knowledge that the years and place in which Charlotte lived did not welcome cross-dressers in the slightest.
The underlying question through I Am My Own Wife is how on earth did an overt transvestite survive Nazi Germany and Stasi-rife East Berlin? Chipping away at assumptions and stereotypes to get to the core reveals the answer: that to survive, you must look out for number one. In real life, while writing the play, Wright found out the truth about Charlotte’s past, and he shelved the project for six years before approaching the content from a new angle.
We’ve heard so much about the treatment of the Jews during Nazi Germany, but there is less told of the wrath inflicted on homosexuals and anyone deviating from the ‘norm’ of Aryan behaviour. While this historical backdrop seems like the play would be a depressing sob-fest, instead there are many light moments as we marvel at Charlotte’s strong personality, sass, and the incongruity of her masculine features paired to such feminine behaviour.
As soon the he enters the stage, Robert Jarman shimmies the character of Charlotte through his every movement and gesture, posture and mannerisms that of a cultured dame in Berlin. Charlotte’s cheeky but authoritative side endears the audience to her immediately, and it seems she can do no wrong. Jarman then segues to 40 other characters in both voice and body language – an astounding achievement considering there is only one change of costume.
Along the way we’re transported to a fearful childhood, not so much from the bombs, but from the violent wrath of Lothar’s father, then into the bohemian den of 1960s underground homosexuality, and through the Stasi Big Brother era of who’s doing what-when-why-how.
With only one man on a small stage in two acts, how does the production keep the audience’s interest? A combination of set design, lighting, sound and direction means that there are enough intrigues.
Robert Jarman is perfect for the role/s – he combines his obvious masculinity into a petite package of firecracker that is the dainty, pearl-wearing Charlotte. Though my knowledge of German is limited to episodes of TV series Inspector Rex (Austrian!), I got the impression that Jarman’s German accent was spot-on, as was his American lilt and German-English. The scene of visiting the West was particularly funny, contrasting with the earlier and more shocking boyhood crime – showing that Jarman can bond with the audience no matter the character’s demons.
The set design is a treasure trove of nooks and crannies that open up and set the different scenes well, so that we are aware of the when, where and who elements in such a criss-cross woven tale.
The emotional moments are heightened by the lighting and sound, particularly the grainy phonograph recordings, which provide escapism for Charlotte’s tragic moments.
What didn’t work so well was the pace mid-way through the second act, where things seemed to drag on a bit. By then we knew who Charlotte was, and it was thus fulfilling Doug’s character arc that remained. Also, the two American characters of John and Doug were too similar in portrayal as to be confusing at times.
Coming good in the end though was the fitting finale: a vision of innocence left a question in our minds. Are circumstances what make us who we are, or are we already that way?
Gay, straight, cross-dresser or not, anyone with an interest in human nature, and particularly modern Europeans history, will enjoy the play. I Am My Own Wife is an example of theatre at its core: to reveal characters in a way that you reveal the audience.
Tasmanian Theatre Company presents
I Am My Own Wife
by Doug Wright
Directed by Annette Downs
Venue: Street Two | The Street Theatre, 15 Childers St, Canberra City West
Dates: 18 May – 28 May 2011
Times: Wednesday – Saturdays @ 7.30pm | Tuesday 22 May @ 6pm
Tickets: Standard $29, Concession $25, Student $19
Bookings: 6247 1223 | www.thestreet.org.au