I Am My Own Wife (Seattle Repertory)

Posted on February 14, 2012

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Pictured: Nick Garrison in I Am My Own Wife at Seattle Repertory Theatre. Photo by Chris Bennion.

February 8, 2012 marked the opening night for Seattle Repertory’s provocative yet compelling production of I Am My Own Wife written by Doug Wright and directed by Jerry Manning. I Am My Own Wife presents the fascinating real life story of Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, an East German transvestite* who lived openly through two of the most oppressive regimes the world has known, Nazi Germany and East German Communism.

It is an intriguing yet complex multilayered tale, at times self-indulgently shocking; yet also surprisingly emotive; even tender at moments. Irrespective of one’s feelings regarding homosexuality and transvestism*, audiences cannot help but be moved by the all too real and fundamentally human plight of Charlotte von Mahlsdorf as she unflinchingly confronts decades of ignorance and misunderstanding with unapologetic pride. One may be startled to discover at some point in the play just how taken they have become with this enigmatic figure which Nick Garrison’s portrayal brilliantly brings to life.

We are introduced to Charlotte as a 16 year old boy named Lothar. She is a stranger to us, yet there is something engaging about this wildly eccentric individual who obsessively collects mundane objects from bombed out houses during the war (her ‘treasures’) and stores them in her home which later becomes the Gründerzeit Museum. I Am My Own Wife begins with her describing her beloved music machines and the other assortment of artifacts which she has collected and lovingly preserved.

Pictured: Nick Garrison in I Am My Own Wife at Seattle Repertory Theatre. Photo by Chris Bennion.

The play itself feels a bit frenzied in its pacing at times, no doubt driven by the herculean task of trying to confine the larger than life personality of Charlotte into a manageable amount of time. Doug Wright takes us back and forth through time effectively as he reveals new dimensions and revelations about her life. Sadly, with her death in 2002, we are left to speculate along with Doug Wright, just what the full truth about Charlotte was, given her suspected status as an informant for the Stasi in the early and mid-70’s, as well as several conflicting accounts within her own biography concerning the Nazi and GDR periods.

I Am My Own Wife is for mature audiences and may put some people off by its subject matter or that at times it seems to delight in being purposefully shocking. While it does put a personable and engaging face on transvestism*, Charlotte’s story speaks to something deeper and yet something more universally connectable. It speaks to the fundamental value and dignity of all human life, the respect that others deserve regardless of whether or not they dress, vote or act in the same manner that we do and the familiar coming of age angst we all experienced while making peace with who we are as unique individuals. It also speaks to our indomitable capacity to survive even the most unimaginable of situations and that is worthy of being celebrated.

The story dares us to withhold our judgment and just bear witnesses to an amazing life lived to the fullest despite the obstacles which confronted her throughout her life. Charlotte’s example challenges each of us to find positive ways to respond to our own difficult life situations, to do so with similar courage and to not only survive them but to find a way to thrive in spite of them. It’s impossible for us to fully put ourselves in the shoes of another. So, yes we are shocked by Charlotte’s violent bludgeoning of her Nazi father with a rolling pin, but we are also moved by her years of enduring a domineering and demanding father and her internal struggle to find and be confident in her own identify. We are outraged by the 1991 neo-Nazi attack upon a celebration that she hosted at her museum, which not only resulted in several participants being injured by which ultimately forced her to have to relocate from beloved Berlin to Sweden.

Pictured: Nick Garrison in I Am My Own Wife at Seattle Repertory Theatre. Photo by Chris Bennion.

Nick Garrison succeeds in depicting the complex, at times paradoxical personality of Charlotte von Mahlsdorf and doing so in a way that hooks us into becoming invested in her. The fact that’s he is able to do this, while also portraying some thirty odd supporting characters and doing so in a mix of German and English, is astonishing. Irrespective of what else one might think about Charlotte, whether or not the allegations made against her are true, her life is a triumph of survival, a rare beating of the odds. It is the story of overcoming and persistence; one which we all need to be reminded of.

I Am My Own Wife connects with audiences and works because of Charlotte’s unique and compelling story, Doug Wright’s ten year labor of love in documenting that story and Nick Garrison’s visceral portrayal of the complexity, strength and vulnerability of Charlotte. The play seems all but destined to become a classic; serving to preserve the memory and mystery of Charlotte for all posterity. No doubt, to be treasured much like the very objects she collected and lined her house with throughout her lifetime. While Charlotte might seem to be a character born of another time and place, it is more than just the shear improbableness of her situation which intrigues us. She is the very embodiment of humanity’s ability to rise above our challenges, being true to ourselves and a reminder that it is often how we treat others which eventually becomes the lasting legacy of our own life.

I Am My Own Wife runs through March 4, 2012 at the Seattle Repertory with performances Wednesday-Sunday at 7:30pm and select Saturday, Sunday and Wednesday matinees at 2pm. For more information, go to www.seattlerep.org.

* The terms transvestite and transvestism are used only because they are terms that Charlotte and her biographer, Doug Wright use to describe Charlotte. Today these are considered offensive terms and the proper respectful term would be transgendered or transgenderism. A detailed description of these terms can be found at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Transgender/

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