Everyday Objects 

I Am My Own Wife mixes the exotic and mundane.

Charlotte von Mahlsdorf (born Lothar Berfelde) wasn't your stereotypical transvestite. She didn't care for makeup or drape herself in jewelry. She preferred sensible shoes, and her wardrobe was perfectly unfabulous, bordering on the monastic. Her speech could be blue if the circumstances warranted, but as a rule, her words were measured, understated, and calm.

Mahlsdorf, who died in 2002, at 72, was an East German antiques dealer and an obsessive collector of everyday objects. Doug Wright's Pulitzer Prize-winning play I Am My Own Wife finds a dramatized reflection of the frail she-male giving a tour of her Grunderzeit Museum, telling stories of abuse and survival in Nazi Germany and defending herself from critics who accused her of being an informant for the Stasi in communist East Berlin.

With I Am My Own Wife, Wright, whose previous works include the black comedy Quills and the screenplay for Memoirs of a Geisha, takes a documentary approach to his subject, similar to the interviews compiled in Moises Kaufman's The Laramie Project. The principal conflicts in this one-person show aren't between Mahlsdorf and the Nazis but between the playwright and himself as he conducts interviews, learns German, and struggles to discover the source of his obsession (Mahlsdorf) and his need to find her credible. What begins as a parochial character study wrapped in a pot-boiling mystery ends as a meditation on the lies we tell ourselves in order to cope with outrageous circumstances. The surprising script takes us from justifiable fratricide to less extreme, and possibly less forgivable, methods of self-preservation.

Michael Gravois, who demonstrated a knack for chameleonlike change by playing half of Ireland in last season's Stones in His Pockets, slides easily back and forth between each of I Am My Own Wife's 30-plus characters. Like the excellent Stones, I Am My Own Wife is directed by University of Memphis professor Stephen Hancock, who also worked with Gravois in an acclaimed and award-winning production of Three Days of Rain. Clearly, there's good chemistry between this actor and director. Each collaboration has resulted in a set of characterizations just a little more interesting than the last.

David Nofsinger's set is functional and understated with some truly elegant flourishes. Narrow shelves lined with 19th-century clocks, phonographs, and other assorted knickknacks serve as an appropriately abstracted portrait of the person who collected them, while detailed enlargements of postage stamps from Weimar, Germany, give depth to the stage.

The best thing that can be said about Gravois' performance is that even in a one-person show, he's never the star. He never once shows off or allows the the personality of any one character to dominate a scene. Instead he lets his many characters respond to one another organically, like a well-rehearsed troupe of ensemble players who happen to share a single body.

As Mahlsdorf, the actor tells the story of an admirer who once stopped the transvestite to compliment a backside that seemed to be made for a little spanking. The admirer stopped her with a phrase that meant "a good woman, not too proud."

The thing that makes ordinary things extraordinary, Mahlsdorf explains, is their memories -- their scratches, stains, and fractures. "I wish I could take a phonograph needle and run it around the table," she says, longing to hear the conversations of Bertolt Brecht, Marlene Dietrich, and all the other intellectuals and bon vivants who once sat there to drink. The thing that makes I Am My Own Wife extraordinary is that it's never allowed to become overly precious. It comes on with all the warped authenticity of a scratched-up sound recording played on an Edison standard.

I Am My Own Wife

Circuit Playhouse

Through August 27th

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