Our memories all have shape and form. When we think back on a memory, we change its shape. We all do it. It’s called False Memory Syndrome. If we reflect back on something repeatedly, it’s not the original memory we recall, it’s how it appeared to us the last time we thought of it. Its shape continues to change. Often, it can get to the point where we’ve changed its shape and form so much that what began as truth has, over a long period, morphed into something else, even though we’re convinced that what we’re seeing in our mind’s eye is exactly how it happened.
It’s a fascinating dilemma. And it’s this very issue that comes unexpectedly at the heart of I Am My Own Wife, now playing at The Phoenix Theatre Company’s Judith Hardes Theatre until March 16, presented by the newly emerging Blk Box Phx company – reality or perceived reality.
I Am My Own Wife is a one-man Pulitzer prize-winning play by Doug Wright recalling the memories of the founder of the Gründerzeit Museum in Berlin-Mahlsdorf, transvestite Charlotte von Mahlsdorf. Charlotte was born Lothar Berfelde. As a boy, Lothar beat his abusive Nazi father to death and spent four years of detention as a juvenile. Following his release from prison, the boy found work as a used-goods dealer and felt considerably more comfortable when dressed as a woman. He adopted the name Charlotte and changed his last name to von Mahlsdorf, based on the Berlin suburb in which he was born. Going forward, in keeping with Charlotte’s wishes, he will now be referred to as ‘she.’
When Doug Wright, already a successful playwright, came across the idea of writing a play about the life of Charlotte, her survival as a transvestite during both the Nazi regime then the rise and the fall of the communists, he decided upon a setup. Based on his recorded interviews, the play would be a one-man presentation. In recounting her story to Wright, whoever played Charlotte would also give voice to more than thirty plus other characters, including the writer himself. The production begins with the author wanting to write a play and asking for Charlotte’s permission. Having agreed, the author travels to Germany and records a series of interviews where Charlotte recounts her life. As the author tells a friend back in America, “She doesn’t just run a museum, she is one.”
Despite the show’s initially daunting length for a one-man play – approximately 70 minutes for the first act, a fifteen-minute intermission, then a 55-minute second act – I Am My Own Wife immediately holds your attention. Once the intermission arrives, it’s hard to believe that more than an hour has already passed. This is due to two things: the events of Charlotte’s life, which are nothing less than engrossing, and the engagement of actor Seth Tucker as Charlotte.
Dressed in designer Cari Sue Smith’s black dress and white pearls, no feminine makeup, Tucker draws us in, almost seductively so, as the transvestite who has so much to say and says it softly, slowly, deliberately, and often with an engaging smile. Supported by Daniel Davisson’s atmospheric changes in light and Peter Bish’s sound design of air-bombers, scratched music recordings, and the noises of a dank, dark prison cell among others, with a convincing accent, Charlotte relates her days prior to the war as a youth. She incorporates images of life with the rise of the Nazis, air raids over Germany, the moment she killed her father, the deal she signed with the Stasi to inform on friends and family, the fall of the Berlin wall, and her museum of everyday artifacts.
It’s difficult to say exactly how many different characters are incorporated into the telling – several of them have only a brief moment of show with just a line or two of dialog – but with a change of accents and posture, Tucker seamlessly and successfully inhabits everyone who becomes a part of the story. In addition to Charlotte’s German dialect, Tucker tackles French, Indian, British and Japanese dialects, plus different American accents, ranging from Californian, Texan, and even, if I’m not mistaken, Brooklyn. When portraying the author Doug Wright you suspect there’s no attempt at an impersonation, the voice that the actor uses is presumably his own, though the most amusing of all the accents employed is the one of an American translator whose German is straight from downtown Dallas.
Backed by an effective though not overly busy set design of Charlotte’s museum by Tiana Torrilhon – it’s a series of shelves upon which you’ll see all kinds of artifacts, including Victrolas and gramophones – Tucker casts a spell that is quite extraordinary, guided by the direction of Elaine “E.E.” Moe.
However, even though Wright’s play may have won the prestigious Pulitzer in 2001 for drama, it’s not without a fundamental flaw. By injecting himself as a character into the story, you can’t help the feeling that as a dramatist perhaps he’s overstepped the mark. It’s one thing when he’s simply the interviewer asking questions. That works fine. But when he becomes an important part of the narrative with his comments, his observations, and his own plot-line conflicts as to whether what he’s hearing is the truth, that’s something else. In 2016, there was a re-imagined version of the play where four actors were used, including one who played the role of the writer. Perhaps that worked more effectively – it received praise from the author – but somehow as a one-man play as originally written and presented, which is what we have here, you can’t help struggle with a nagging feeling that maybe Mr. Wright has gone into areas of some unwelcomed self-indulgence.
The notion that what we’re hearing may be Charlotte’s embellishments comes into question when the official files of her time as an informant are revealed to conflict with her own accounts. The question then, of course, is if her recollections of that period are not exactly how things really were, how accurate is everything else? Plus, the heroism of being an uncompromising, true-to-herself transvestite during her time with the Nazis and later with the Communists is made less effective when you know she informed on friends and family, something that helps explain her continual survival. But maybe by having author Wright’s decision to include everything, including her own story-telling flaws, a certain kind of ‘truth’ emerges, one born of the results of a False Memory Syndrome. It’s still a remarkable tale.
If anything, I Am My Own Wife tells of the need to record the narrative of all of our lives. We may not have endured the conflicts that Charlotte von Mahlsdorf experienced, but like the everyday artifacts collected for her Berlin museum, we all have our everyday stories to tell, and they need to be on record. And it needs to be done before we lose the shape and form of our memories altogether.
I Am My Own Wife continues at The Phoenix Theatre Company’s Judith Hardes Theatre until March 17
Pictures Courtesy of Reg Madison