Multi-layered and carefully curated is the best way to describe Zoetic Stage's production of the interesting one-person play I Am My Own Wife, now on stage in the Carnival Studio Theatre at the Adrienne Arsht Center.
The fascinating character study by Doug Wright tells the tale of Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, a transvestite who survived the Nazis and Communists in East Berlin, and does so "in a pair of high heels," according to one of the almost 40 characters that actor Tom Wahl is called upon to portray during the two hour tour de force.
Wahl, seen last season at Zoetic Stage as Clayton Porter in Moscow, is a perfect partner for I Am My Own Wife. He inhabits each character, painting vivid scenes in the memory play. It's a rich and thoroughly drawn cast even though Wahl appears on stage alone during the entire course of the show. There's only one costume change, otherwise the character wears a simple brown housedress, kerchief that looks like a modern nun's habit, a strand of elegant pearls, and black army boots.
The actor who plays the part must, according to Wright's stage notes in the script, make the distinctions between the characters through "stance, posture and gesture, and changes in the tonal quality and pitch of the voice." Wahl does so with skill in his execution, making each succinct and individual, and never having one blend into the other. There are the Nazi soldiers with their rigid stances, the American soldiers with their Southern drawls, the boorish German talk show host, reporters from India, Japan, France, and the U.S. cities of San Francisco and New York. There's Tante (Aunt) Luise, a gun-toting lesbian and open cross-dresser, who discovered her nephew, Lothar, experimenting with female attire and gave him a book, Die Transvestiten (The Transvestites). "She gave me a book and a blessing," von Mahlsdorf confesses to the audience. There's the writer who is interviewing von Mahlsdorf for a play he hopes to create about her life, the antiques collector von Mahlsdorf befriends then betrays, plus a smattering of other friends and family. Then there's the now 65-year-old von Mahlsdorf herself, the most compelling, who Wahl portrays as eccentric and tenacious, yet downright likeable. Wahl as von Mahlsdorf has to jockey, too, between speaking in German and English, and he does so without a stumble.
Wright's play won a Pulitzer Prize, Tony and Drama Desk awards in 2004 after its debut off-Broadway in 2003 and rightly so. He created his play after more than two years of interviewing von Mahlsdorf, which yielded 500 pages of transcripts. Not only does he tell the antique collector's intricate story about her museum collection of furnishings left behind after its owners were taken by Nazis and her possible involvement as a Stasi informant, but the audience is also privy to the process of Wright's creation of the play, his feelings about the friendship he forged, her exile and eventual death.
There's a depth to the play that is also absorbing. While the lines spoken appear somewhat mild on the surface, they present deep themes about oppression and survival. Music and its connection to the human soul is prevalent as the main character speaks volumes about gramophones (at too much length at the beginning, frankly, where every detail is conveyed), but the music and von Mahlsdorf's collection of the antiques, according to Wright, are meant to represent the role of art in repressive regimes.
The production is beautifully detailed, which completes the wonderful portrait of this fascinating survivor. Zoetic Stage has transformed the theater into an early 20th century German cabaret. Audience members sit at small tables rather than typical row seating. The set recalls an art installation with von Mahlsdorf's museum collection of antiques framed in various window shadow boxes and covered with sheer curtains. Lighting design by Luke Klinberg, mostly soft blues for the installation set, creates the perfect dream-like ambiance. Jodi Dellaventura had the heady task of re-creating von Mahlsdorf's Gründerzeit Museum that existed in East Berlin inside a manor house; her choices are the right objets d'art. Costume design is by Alberto Arroyo, and although limited, complements the overall palette.
It is, no doubt, demanding to bring everything together for this unusual and mesmerizing work, and Zoetic Artistic Director Stuart Meltzer, who directed I Am My Own Wife, should be credited with ensuring a production of such high caliber that is thoroughly thought provoking and tenderly rendered.
photos Justin Namon
I Am My Own Wife at Zoetic Stage inside the Carnival Studio Theatre, Ziff Ballet Opera House, Adrienne Arsht Center, 1300 Biscayne Blvd., Miami, through Oct. 21. 305-949-6722, or www.zoeticstage.com