Doug Wright’s Tony- and Pulitzer-winning play I Am My Own Wife, now on stage at Seattle Repertory Theatre, is as enigmatic, unusual and fascinating as its central character. Considering that character is Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, a German transvestite who lived through both the Nazi and Communist regimes in East Berlin, that’s no faint praise.
The one-man show debuted on Broadway to great acclaim in 2003 and has now made its way to the Rep, where Wright’s longtime friend and artistic director Jerry Manning is helming the production. Star Nick Garrison, wearing a simple, bandana-like head covering and a plain gray peasant dress, plays close to 40 characters — police, press, von Mahlsdorf, and even Wright himself.
Wright’s personal approach is risky; by inserting himself as a character, he risks upending the play’s balance and overshadowing the delicately intriguing von Mahlsdorf. But there’s no misguided solipsism here — Wright’s own fascination, bewilderment, doubt, and hopefulness simply sit around the edges, supplementing the audience’s conflicting emotions while allowing for von Mahsldorf to remain firmly at the center.
Loosely structured around a series of recorded conversations Wright had with von Mahlsdorf in the early ’90s, I Am My Own Wife swells with vivid biographical details. Born Lothar Berfelde, Charlotte felt from an early age that she was a girl and lived that way throughout the era of Nazi rule and the subsequent Communist regime in the German Democratic Republic. An antique collector, she accumulated large amounts of ordinary household furniture, each piece suffused with the memory of a bygone time.
Memory plays a major role in I Am My Own Wife, with von Mahlsdorf constantly returning to the past to retell important life events and Wright undertaking the project because of a deep conviction this life needed to be remembered. But when the second act delves into the corruption of memory, every previously established fact becomes refracted. Unsavory assertions about von Mahlsdorf’s associations with the Stasi shroud the oral history in ambiguity, and in their wake, she becomes an even more beguiling figure.