I Am My Own Wife
About Face Theatre at the Museum of Contemporary Art
About Face Theatre's Festival of New Plays, the first in a proposed annual showcase of gay and lesbian works, is off to a meager start. Besides its anchor piece, Doug Wright's I Am My Own Wife, it's offering just three workshop productions, each being given one or two performances, and four staged readings, ditto. But there are lots of handsome full-color brochures. If you compare it to Bailwick's Pride Series and the Rhinoceros Theater Festival, both of which offer significant runs of a dozen or more full-scale productions—on shoestring budgets, no less—it's hard to believe that About Face's event will ever blossom into "the nation's premiere forum for major works of gay and lesbian theatre," as the company's website puts it.
Perhaps these tryouts will plant seeds for more significant works later. But to earn an audience's trust, the organizers need to avoid the kind of misleading marketing that taints I Am My Own Wife, the only show with a lengthy run. Although festival brochures and newspaper ads identify three other shows as low-priced workshops, nothing would suggest to a paying audience member that the $20 I Am My Own Wife is anything but a finished work—that is, until you open your program to discover that it too is being workshopped. The nearest thing to a statement of truth appears on About Face's Web page, which calls the production an "exclusive preview" before a New York premiere this spring. But given the play's three other presentations since 2000—including a 25-performance run at the La Jolla Playhouse last year—it's difficult to know what's exclusive about this one.
This one-man show—which attempts to dramatize the life of Charlotte von Mahlsdorf (born Lothar Burfelde), a German transvestite who survived the Nazis and the Communists without removing her heels—sports an impressive pedigree. Wright achieved great success both off-Broadway and in Hollywood with Quills, his study of the Marquis de Sade. And director Moises Kaufman scored big with The Laramie Project, one of the country's most widely produced scripts. Given the reputations involved, the work's extensive development, and its fascinating subject matter, it's startling how unsatisfying this promising piece is.
I Am My Own Wife opens with the astonishingly precise and mercurial Jefferson Mays entering as Charlotte, fully costumed in an austere black dress and kerchief, tasteful string of pearls, and orthopedic shoes. Comfortably ensconced in her museum of antique furniture, a collection to which she's devoted her life, Charlotte tells us about one of her prize possessions, an original Edison talking machine. Speaking in guarded cadences, she describes the object as though eulogizing a lover.
This singularly intriguing figure surely has many riveting stories to tell. But almost immediately Charlotte is transformed into a foreign correspondent named John Marks, writing an excited letter to Wright himself suggesting that an elderly German transvestite he's met would make a great subject for a play. Then Mays becomes Wright answering Marks's letter, announcing his plans to fly to Berlin to meet Charlotte. And the play's first unanswerable question arises: What are Marks and Wright doing in Charlotte's dress? It's not a choice justified by any commentary in the script.
The play continues in this fashion, going back and forth between Charlotte's life story and Wright's struggle to transform it into drama. Fortunately, the bulk of the first act is comprised of Charlotte speaking for herself, telling her tale in sometimes gripping, sometimes sketchy detail. At the age of six she tried on her first dress, prompting her cross-dressing lesbian aunt to give her a copy of Magnus Hirschfeld's groundbreaking Transvestites. When the Nazis came to power, Charlotte glued false labels on prized recordings of pieces composed by Jews. In the waning days of World War II, when the 16-year-old civilian defied German law by refusing to carry a weapon, an SS officer dragged her before a firing squad; the merest whim of fate saved her. In these moments Charlotte's engrossing narrative combines with Mays's craft to produce riveting theater.
Unfortunately, Wright continues to have Charlotte morph into lots of other characters—Nazi officers, Communist secret police, her own father—all of whom are inexplicably stuck in her dress and pearls. They'd be more credibly present if she simply remembered them for us. And since Charlotte most often transforms into Wright himself, his frustration at capturing the essence of her character gradually becomes the play's focus. Alongside the enormity of the challenges Charlotte faced, however, Wright's saga carries little weight.
In the second act Charlotte turns into more and more people—a television anchorman, a talk-show host, numerous foreign journalists—who often enact entire scenes involving multiple characters, all in drag. Under this flurry of unnecessary tangents and gimmicks, Charlotte's story recedes further and further. And in the play's biggest miscalculation, after we've spent two hours trying to piece together her story, Wright suggests that Charlotte is mentally ill and has made it all up. It's as if he feels compelled to invent elaborate theatrical devices to make the play interesting when his main character has everything he needs. If she'd led us on a tour of her museum, letting the objects serve as reminders of a colorful life, Wright might have come up with a compelling piece of theater.
But judging by the episodes he's chosen to depict, he didn't have a lot of material to choose from. Despite numerous interviews with Charlotte over two years, Wright hasn't brought her story to life. A handful of gripping incidents doesn't amount to a narrative; we never get a richly detailed account of a life lived against impossible odds. Perhaps Charlotte was not forthcoming in interviews. Perhaps Wright lacked the skills to draw her out. But as any fledgling journalist knows, if you don't get the story, you move on and write something else.
Before I Disappear
Like Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, Chicagoan Alexandra Billings faced nearly insurmountable odds: she was born a boy but believed herself a girl, slipped into prostitution and drug addiction, and was reviled by casting directors as a perverted freak and eventually diagnosed with AIDS. In her one-woman show Before I Disappear (which heads to New York for a five-day run in April), she creates a multiplicity of characters—as Wright does for Charlotte—to illuminate the travails of her life as a transsexual.
But Billings (who appears in neutral clothing: black slacks and a blue shirt) uses multiple characters in a challenging, even ingenious way. Whether portraying her childhood baby-sitter, abusive ex-lover, or addled mother, she creates nuanced portraits of people who advance and complicate her circuitous narrative. Although she plays only one character in each scene (with the exception of a tour de force when she portrays three versions of her prostitute self), she creates a stageful of people to whom her characters react. And though Billings is as meticulous a performer as Mays, his portrayals are so tightly controlled by Kaufman that they become nearly mechanical, while Billings gives her roles an exuberant humanity that makes the stage resonate with life.
The nearly two-hour Before I Disappear loses some focus in its second half: the late scenes are one-dimensional compared to the complexity of the first act. But it's thrilling to witness the range of Billings's talent and the profundity of a life, like Charlotte's, lived on the verge of extinction.