Whatever scenario Doug Wright had in mind when first he interviewed Charlotte von Mahlsdorf with the aim of writing a play about her, we can safely assume it was something more conventional than his prismatic meta-biography, I Am My Own Wife.
Wright’s single actor, multi-character opus won the Tony Award for Best Play and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2004, more than a decade after Mahlsdorf first began recounting her strange (and possibly tall) tale into his tape recorder. Along the way, the playwright grappled with a Berlin Wall of writer’s block, beguiled by premise-thickening revelations about a subject he'd initially hoped to venerate as a hero. But the complexity that so confounded him turned out to be the very thing that gives his play about a cross-dressing furniture collector in fascist East Germany an unlikely universal resonance.
Director Alan Paul’s absorbing new Signature Theatre production of I Am My Own Wife is — sorry — an ideal marriage of performer and material, entrusting its 36 roles to the versatile craftsman that is Andrew Long. Biographies seem more suited to the solo-performer approach than do other kinds of stories: We are vast, we contain multitudes, etc. But few of us contian as many multitudes as Long, who managed to make a child killer almost sympathetic in Studio Theatre’s 2006 Frozen, and played Mark Antony at different ages in the Shakespeare Theatre’s concurrent 2008 productions of Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra. In this goodly Wife, he’s found another formidable challenge, one that does not outpace his prodigious gifts.
How good is he? While briefly inhabiting the personage of Mahlsdorf’s friend and fellow pack-rat Alfred Kirchner, he recalls the extreme means by which a prison surgeon removed a ring he was wearing. (It wasn’t on his finger.) You’re not so distracted by harrowing thoughts of intimate injury that you miss Long’s tranformation from from Kirchner back into Mahlsdorf in the interval of a mirthless laugh. It’s a bravura moment, the sort of stunt from which he otherwise abstains, keeping most of his identity-shifts invisible, like magic.
Born shortly before Adolf Hitler took power in 1933, Mahlsorf survived both the Nazi and subsequent Communist regimes while living openly as a transvestite, one of the many species of undesireable these totalitarian governments worked to purge. Biologically a boy, Mahlsdorf dressed and identified as a woman from early adolescentce. She conducted tours of the furniture museum she maintained in her home in her housedress and pearls. (She also opened it to Berlin’s GLBT community as a tryst-spot.)
How she manged to do all this more or less openly in a society of surveillance and intolerance is the crux of what makes her life so fascinating. It’s “like a Cold War thriller written by Armistead Maupin,” quips Wright’s journalist pal John Marks in one of the play’s many self-referential interludes, cautioning the playwright to treat Mahlsdorf’s claims with skepticism.
The show is a good fit for Signature’s cozy Ark space. Wilson Chin’s set doesn’t go for Weimar decadence, instead surrounding Long with packing crates. When lit from within, they reveal their contents, the old grammophones and dressers and, especially, clocks Mahlsdorf hung onto long after they’d fallen out of fashion or into disrepair.
Wright previously imagined a vivid account of the Marquis de Sade’s imprisonment in the play and subsequent film Quills, before going on to write the book for Disney’s stage version of The Little Mermaid. In Mahlsdorf, he went looking for an idealist and found a pragmatist instead. Did Mahlsdorf actually save lives, or a culture the Communists had consigned to oblivion? Or did she just hang onto some old clocks? It’s a provocative question, one that Paul and Long don't try to answer. They leave its ambiguities intact.
I Am My Own Wife is at Signature Theatre through March 7. The performance runs approximately two hours including one 15-minute intermission. Tickets are available at www.signature-theatre.org or (703) 573-7328.
This review appears in today's Examiner.