I Am My Own Wife


Editorial Review

Theater review: Andrew Long in 'I Am My Own Wife' at Signature

By Peter Marks
Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2010

For two hours of alone time on a stage and the chance to play 35 characters in almost as many accents, you can imagine actors flinging themselves prostrate at the feet of casting directors. Which may partly explain why "I Am My Own Wife," the award-winning solo piece about the enigmatic East German cross-dresser Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, has been produced professionally in the region four times in the last five years.

The newest version crops up in the smaller of Signature Theatre's two spaces, the Ark, in a meticulous production directed by Alan Paul that proves again to be an actor's dream -- but also, as always, oddly resistible. This time the protean Andrew Long dons black peasant dress and pearls to become Charlotte (born Lothar Berfelde), whose exotic and controversial life behind the Iron Curtain is the fodder for Doug Wright's 2003 work -- more of a psychological study, really, than a play.

Long is an actor of chilling intensity, in evidence whether he's portraying a child killer (in Studio Theatre's "Frozen") or an eloquent Roman (Shakespeare Theatre Company's "Antony and Cleopatra"). He brings a gentler facet of his considerable technique to "I Am My Own Wife," embodying the evening's central character as a demure, retiring eccentric, devoted to the museum of antiques -- and perfectly preserved gay bar -- that Charlotte brazenly maintains all through the years of Communist control.

Is Charlotte a gay rights hero, though, or something far more morally complex? That is the crux of the conundrum for us and for Wright, who is written into "Wife" as an accurate reflection of himself, a gay playwright whose mission of composing a drama about this diffident man metamorphoses as he discovers Charlotte's myriad contradictions. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, Charlotte was revealed to have been recruited by the Stasi -- the notorious East German secret police -- as an informer on his friends and patrons.

How much damage can be traced back to Charlotte's betrayal is as elusive for Wright as Charlotte herself. "Wife" attempts to deal thoughtfully with some of the messy, murky truths about martyrdom and our need to mythologize -- that the saints we create are in reality not without deep, disturbing flaws of their own.

An audience naturally is intrigued by Charlotte's mystery, and Long ably sustains the illusion of this man's elusive essence. The visage of the resolutely un-feminine Long, in severe calf-length dress and head scarf, underscores something admirable in Charlotte, the determination to be oneself no matter how harshly the world might judge. The actor makes seamless, too, "Wife's" segues from character to character, illuminating the spectrum of supportive and threatening individuals by whom a person of Charlotte's daring was consoled, and with whom had to contend.

Yet it must also be said that the manner of storytelling here, the tendency of the author to step back and have us examine Charlotte as if she were a specimen, confers on "Wife" some measure of academic mustiness. It's by no means a fatal tentativeness. Still, at the end of the evening you are left with the sense of having been guided through a rather modest exhibit.

Modest, though, has to be a particular attraction these days for theater companies seeking to fill their spaces. The economical "Wife" can be done not only with a single actor, but also with a single set: A few crates containing the clocks and credenzas and other objects that Charlotte has so lovingly collected are all designer Wilson Chin requires to suggest Charlotte's tightly controlled world of airless beauty.

In tough financial times, particularly, it wouldn't be surprising to find Charlotte popping up again somewhere, soon.

By Doug Wright. Directed by Alan Paul. Costumes, Kathleen Geldard; lighting, Colin K. Bills; sound, Veronika Vorel; dialects, Gary Logan. About 1 hour 50 minutes.