Bruce R. Nelson Takes On 35 Parts in Everyman Theatre's 'I Am My Own Wife'

By Jane Horwitz
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Bruce R. Nelson has played multiple characters and has done solo pieces, but the 35 people he takes on in "I Am My Own Wife," at Baltimore's Everyman Theatre, loomed as a new sort of theatrical beast.

So Nelson, winner of two Helen Hayes Awards (for his work at Rep Stage in "The Violet Hour" and "The Dazzle") made the not-so-easy decision to go to the Lincoln Center's video archive and watch the original performance by Jefferson Mays as the legendary German transvestite Charlotte von Mahlsdorf and 34 other people in her story.

Von Mahlsdorf survived both Nazi and communist regimes and lived to tell a lot about it, especially to "I Am My Own Wife" dramatist Doug Wright. Mays originated the performance (he did it here at the National Theatre in 2005) and collaborated closely with Wright and director Mois├ęs Kaufman.

"Even though I had done similar types of pieces -- 'Santaland Diaries,' 'Travels With My Aunt,' 'The Pavilion' were all examples of me being [multiple] characters and sometimes talking with myself" onstage, says Nelson, "I was still intrigued as to how Jefferson would do it."

Nelson and director Donald Hicken were particularly concerned with technical details -- how Mays kept it clear for the audience who was speaking, how he made the lightning transitions between two or three characters, how he mimed the use of certain props.

Now that they're deep into rehearsals, Nelson says his concerns about losing his own "creative choices" after seeing the video have evaporated. "I'm definitely making it my own and I guess enjoying for the first time in a very long time, a process. Because it's so scaled down. It's me, the director, the stage manager -- and the subject matter is so thrilling."

When Nelson came to him with the script and asked him to direct, recalls Hicken, who also runs the theater department at Baltimore School for the Arts, he wasn't that familiar with the play. "I read the play . . . [and] it just really knocked me out, and I went back to him and I said, 'This is huge.' "

Hicken once thought of Nelson as a strictly comic actor, but discovered otherwise when directing him in both comic and dramatic roles in three Everyman shows: "The Turn of the Screw," "The Cripple of Inishmaan" and "Watch on the Rhine." He praises Nelson's "incredible work ethic."

The play raises questions of fact around von Mahlsdorf's life -- whether as a child, she really killed her abusive father; whether she was an informer for the East German secret police; or whether she fed them just enough baloney that they allowed her to continue to collect her beloved antique furniture and to keep her cellar as an underground gay cafe.

"As a gay man, I like to believe that this completely improbable person did all of these things. Now, whether they're true or not, part of me does not care. I think I care more about the fantasy . . . that she eluded these huge regimes and did it openly as a transvestite. I just love the thumbing the nose in such a brazen way," says Nelson.

Both actor and director see at the core of "I Am My Own Wife" (running Jan. 14 to Feb. 22) the playwright's journey -- how Wright's efforts to learn the truth and his struggle to shape the material led to a revelation. In the play, says Nelson, Wright "has his eyes opened. He thought growing up gay in the Bible Belt was tough. Well, look at Charlotte growing up when she did."

Observes Hicken: "You realize what the cost of survival is when you're dealing with oppressive regimes and that level of intolerance. What it actually takes in human terms to survive that is pretty remarkable."

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