Wednesday, 12 July 2006

I Am My Own Wife by Doug Wright, MTC, July 12, 2006

 I Am My Own Wife by Doug Wright
Melbourne Theatre Company with Delphi Productions
Where and When: Merlyn Theatre, Malthouse, July 12 to  Aug 1, 2006
Reviewer: Kate Herbert on July 12, 2006

I Am My Own Wife, by Doug Wright, bears the inimitable stamp of an ideal theatrical collaboration between writer, actor, director and designer.

This production boasts the 2004 Pulitzer for Drama and Tony Awards for Best Actor and Best Play. Jefferson Mays is captivating; a consummate actor so in command of his technique that it becomes invisible.

Wright believes in storytelling, an element often ignored in contemporary deconstruction. His play is based on personal research into an eccentric, ageing, East German transvestite and collector of late 19th century furniture. He/she was known as Charlotte von Mahlsdorf (Lottchen).

As Wright investigated Charlotte’s seemingly impossible survival under both Nazis and Communists, he uncovered bravery and layers of secrets and deceptions in her murky past.

Mays conjures Charlotte and delivers her fully formed as if through some magical projection from the past. He captures her tottering gait, slight stoop, light voice, careful, broken English and her caginess about her life.

Dressed in a simple black peasant’s frock, headscarf and boots, Charlotte is an anachronism, a freak, a man living as a woman; not a drag queen but an unglamorous old woman.

Charlotte was irrepressible, outliving regimes and becoming a legend in Berlin. She displayed her collection of Grunderzeit antiques (1890-1900) in her own museum and ran an illegal gay club in her cellar for thirty years. As a teenager, she murdered her father, saving her mother from his violence.

But when her Stasi (Secret Police) file was revealed, her innocence was questioned although she denied betraying friends.

Wright is a character in his own play. Such self-referential writing can fail but, in this case, we need to see Charlotte through Wright’s initially na├»ve eyes to understand that her stories are so well rehearsed and impenetrable that the truth is clouded.

Mays’ performance is just short of miraculous. He not only delivers Lotte with his impeccable characterisation, timing, delivery and a wry humour, but he peoples the stage with a parade of other eccentric characters: a US journalist, Charlotte’s aunt, father and friends, Nazis, Stasi, Siggy, the television host and myriad international reporters.

The sheer theatricality of this production is outstanding. Direction by Moises Kaufman is sleek and seamless. Wright’s dialogue is witty, well observed, respectful and enquiring. The superlative design (Derek McLane) represents Charlotte’s life and museum in a wall of clocks, credenzas and her precious gramophones.

This show will renew your faith in theatre.

By Kate Herbert

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