I Am My Own wife recounts some aspects of the life of Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, a celebrated German transvestite who survived the Nazis, World War II and the East German regime while collecting and maintaining a museum of late 19th- and 20th-century artifacts in the suburbs of Berlin. Her reputation and influence thrived after the Berlin Wall fell, but eventually her character and veracity were doubted because of alleged complicity with the Communist state’s security apparatus.
CanStage has produced an exquisitely rendered version of the play written by New Yorker Doug Wright. A one-actor piece, Toronto’s production is graced by the presence of Stephen Ouimette in a bravura characterization. He is directed by Robin Phillips, with imaginative set and prop designs by Hisham Ali, and equally effective sound and lighting designs by Louise Guinand and John Lott, respectively. In this coproduction with Ottawa’s National Arts Centre, no expense has been spared to achieve the best possible production.
That it ends up being a lot of hard work for little result is a shame. I Am My Own Wife is strangely unaffecting given its dynamite subject matter.
Many of us gay men of a certain age have some familiarity with German gay history: the writings of Magnus Hirschfeld, the Weimar cabarets and persecution during the Nazi and Communist periods. The reclamation of such history is not news. So the reverence being accorded this Pulitzer and Tony Award-winning drama seems misplaced. Perhaps it is another example of the way previously unaware audience members and critics become concerned about a particular story of victimization and then turn their new awareness into admiration for the storyteller.
There is a twist here; in this case, the audience is expected to empathize not only with the struggles of Charlotte’s life, but also with Wright’s discomfort about the compromises that Charlotte made living under the inefficient totalitarianism of Communist East Germany. Apparently our playwright can’t accept that his heroine made some necessary choices to ensure survival in a hostile environment, an environment that Wright himself makes little attempt to understand or illustrate in his drama.
I Am My Own Wife ends up reflecting more of the playwright’s own uncertain motivations than describing the wonderful character of Charlotte. Trying to illustrate his own failure to understand, he resorts to writing himself into the play as one of the play’s 36 characters — very postmodern of course but also exceedingly tiresome.
A drama that concentrated on Charlotte’s life could have been riveting. An exploration of the playwright’s naive disillusionment with the necessary compromises of life is a tame substitute.