by Milton W. Hamlin -
SGN A&E Writer
I Am My Own Wife
Seattle Repertory Theatre
Through March 10
The Tony and Pulitzer-winning I Am My Own Wife finally made it to the Seattle Repertory Theatre, where it continues at the intimate Leo K. Theatre with evening and matinee performances through March 10. While the production was not quite ready for prime time at its opening last week, the impact of the play is of such importance that the prize-winning work should be on the 'must-see' list for any theatergoer in the LGBT community, as well as general audiences throughout the Emerald City. As Washington state moves into same-sex marriage and a new era for gender equality, I Am My Own Wife could not be more timely.
First, a little backstory: Doug Wright, the award winning author of Quills, the story of the Marquis de Sade, stumbled on the incredible true story of a East German transvestite Charlotte von Mahlsdorf in the early 1990s. Fresh from the success of Quills, Wright, an openly Gay man, was looking for the material for a successful follow up to his first theatrical hit. A friend alerted him to the nearly unbelievable story of Charlotte, a man who lived openly as a woman under both the Nazi regime and the Communist era that followed in East Germany. Wright contacted her and she agreed to a series of interviews in her home, once a grand mansion but now filled with collections and clutter, including a 'hidden' LGBT bar from Berlin, salvaged and secreted (and operating) in her basement.
Using grants, loans, and personal income, Wright met, befriended, and interviewed Charlotte over several trips to Germany. Little by little, the shape of the play came into focus. He designed the work as a one-actor play with 30-some speaking characters - many, like the news reporters in the final moments, with only a line or two. Charlotte, of course, has the main focus. Wright, as the potential playwright, the friend who suggested the project, and others connected with the story all take supporting roles.
The show opened out of nowhere on Broadway in New York in 1993-94 and simply took the town by storm. The New York actor won the Tony for Best Actor, the play won the Tony as Best Play and - wonder of wonders - the work won the Pulitzer Prize for Best Play. In every aspect, the New York production was a sensation.
Jerry Manning, now artistic director for Seattle Rep, had worked with the playwright on the New York off-Broadway production of Quills and planned to bring the show to the Rep. In a major local theatrical embarrassment, the Rep even announced that it would be included in the upcoming season. Whoops. The highly regarded ArtsWest, the little theater company in West Seattle, had already secured the production rights to the show and had signed the legal contracts required for the staging. With proverbial egg on its face, the Rep - the most important theater company in town - backtracked, and ArtsWest mounted a triumphant production in 2008.
For this season, the Rep once again scheduled the production and announced that Nick Garrison, who had scored with Hedwig and the Angry Inch (at Re-Bar in 2000 and again in 2004) and in Dirty Little Showtunes with his send-up of Gilbert & Sullivan ('I Am the Very Model of a Modern Homosexual'), would play the lead. While Garrison, a Gay man who has been out 'forever' (according to a lifelong friend), has successfully played many roles - Gay and straight - on Seattle stages, his work as the title transvestite in Hedwig and the patter-song satire seemed to make him the perfect Emerald City actor to bring Charlotte to life at the Rep. For the most part, that's just what happened.
Director Jerry Manning, in his notes for the production, noted the importance of the play to him in his own life.
'As a Gay man - a Gay man who lived through the AIDS crisis of the 1980s,' he began in his 'Letter to Our Patrons,' and went on to discuss the play and his feelings toward it. For many in the opening-night audience, Manning's 'coming out' comment was a surprise. To many others, it was not.
Generally, the Rep gives I Am My Own Wife a first-class, thoroughly polished production. Opening-night stumbles from Garrison limited the impact to a minor degree - it's always disconcerting when an actor starts a line wrong and has to paraphrase it to complete it as written. One presumes that those concerns have been eliminated during the show's first weeks of playing before an audience.
Physically, the production works well. A handsome set - simple at first but growing more detailed as lighting reveals hidden treasures in the house - come to life in some stunning theatrical moments. Jennifer Zeyl deserves much praise for the detailed set design and execution. Ditto for Robert Agular's sensitive lighting. Erik Andor's simple costume design, strangely, goes against the play's textual description of a 'plain black dress,' which was factual and culturally correct for a woman of Charlotte's generation. When Charlotte mentions keys in her apron pocket, it seemed strange that she was not wearing an apron. Quibbles, to be sure, but valid concerns.
Charlotte was born Lothar Berfelde and lived as boy until he was about 13. In 1943, a loving aunt - a Lesbian who lived as a man in men's clothing for most of her life - introduced him to women's clothing. 'Nature played a practical joke on us,' she told the young Lothar, who lived the rest of his life as a woman. The Nazis basically ignored him. The Russian secret police probably used him as an informant on other LGBT figures - history is inconclusive. While Russian documents note that he was an 'informant' in the 1970s, 'everyone was an informant then,' another German character notes.
Toward the end of her life, Charlotte left her beloved 18-room house filled with Victorian furniture, clocks, her beloved phonographs, and thousands and thousands of recordings and moved to Sweden, into 'only' eight rooms. She sold most of her collections but kept her most important things. She was recognized as a national hero and a living treasure, ostracized as an informant - and more.
At the time of her death, no one knew the whole truth. Wright's incredible play simply preserves her story. And what a story it is.
Aside from opening-night stumbles, Garrison gives a remarkable performance. He is always believable as the coy, winning Charlotte, but can quickly become another character in a matter of seconds. It's a memorable performance that should be seen.
I Am My Own Wife continues through March 10 at the Seattle Rep's Bagley Wright Theatre at Seattle Center. Various discounts, 'rush' rates, student and senior admission, and other special ticket pricings are available - ask and ye shall receive. Complete information at (206) 443-2222 or online at www.seattlerep.org. Check it out.
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