A German transvestite walks into a bar in communist occupied East Berlin. No, that's not the build up to some crude joke but the premise of one of the most beautifully written and intriguing plays of this century, "I Am My Own Wife" currently playing at the Seattle Rep. With over 30 characters all played by the incomparable Nick Garrison, what makes author Doug Wright's play even more remarkable is that it's true.
Based on Wright's interviews with her, "I Am My Own Wife" tells the amazing story of the life of Charlotte von Mahlsdorf who, against insurmountable odds, survived the Nazis and the Communists while living in East Berlin as a homosexual transvestite. And even while defying those odds she managed to provide a safe haven for other homosexuals and amass a treasure trove of antique knickknacks and furniture for her museum. But how did she survive unscathed and was she the savior she has made herself out to be? That's the question put forth in this play as secrets come to light surrounding this 65 year old eccentric character.
One can definitely see Wright's love for this woman through his writing as well as the fact that he is one of the characters in his own play. Even as he is interviewing her you can see the shift of investment from project to icon to friend. And of course we are able to see it all through the wonderful performance of Garrison. Not only does he nail the 30 some odd supporting characters surrounding Charlotte in such a way that you never question who is speaking, but he inhabits the quirky main character with genuine warmth and laser focus. He practically disappears into her leaving us only our own audience with Charlotte herself. There were some moments where I would have preferred the joke not be played so much but those were few and far between as Garrison gives a tour de force performance.
And all under the watchful eye of director Jerry Manning who obviously has as much love for the play and the character as Garrison and Wright do as he presented a very raw and true evening. Very little flash over substance is within this show with the gorgeously simple set from Jennifer Zeyl and lights by Robert Aguilar. Add into that some beautiful music and sound design from Robertson Witmer and the play is an all around winner. No matter what you think of Charlotte or her methods of survival, it's a true pleasure to spend an evening with her in this stunning piece of art.
"I Am My Own Wife" plays at Seattle Repertory Theatre through March 4th. For tickets or information contact the Seattle Rep box office at 206-443-2222 or visit them online at www.seattlerep.org.
Photo credit: Chris Bennion