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Stranger than fiction

Review: I Am My Own Wife, Black Swan State Theatre Company ◆
Studio Underground, 18 October ◆
Review by Varnya Bromilow ◆

How do you turn compelling source material into a compelling work of art?  What do you leave in, what do you take out?  How do you create a taut narrative from the mess that is real life?

Such was the conundrum facing American playwright, Doug Wright, when he came upon the remarkable story of Charlotte von Mahlsdorf while working in Berlin in the early 1980’s.  Mahlsdorf, born Lothar Berfelde, was a transgendered antiques collector who killed her abusive father when she was twelve, went to juvenile prison and survived both the Nazi and Communist regimes.  She was allegedly a Stasi spy who may have informed on her friends; but also a hero to the burgeoning gay scene in 1970’s Berlin. Mahlsdorf’s life had an absolute surfeit of dramatic material.

Wright opted to transform the life story into a one-person show, I Am My Own Wife.  Spanning just over 90 minutes, the performance is comprised largely of interviews Wright conducted in 1983, augmented by letters and third person accounts. Mahlsdof’s reputation at the time was under something of a cloud due to the Stasi allegations.  Whether or not she was a compliant source is unclear and the tone here is deliberately ambiguous, but the show does not shy away from celebrating Mahlsdorf as an icon and there is certainly no doubting her personal bravery.  From the sheer chutzpah of embracing her transgendered identity in the face of a repressive Communist regime to operating a museum/cabaret club for Berlin’s gay scene, the play acts like a catalogue of Mahlsdorf’s incredible achievements.  

In the Black Swan production currently showing at the Studio Underground and directed by Joe Lui, it’s Brendan Hanson taking on the ambitious role of von Mahlsdorf.  Comprising over twenty separate roles, (with about as many accents) the sole performer of the work has an arduous task.  Hanson does a stellar job, effortlessly gliding from German dialect to New Yorker to Texan, with the assistance of voice coach Luzita Fereday.

Compelling as Hanson is, the script lets him down.  Wright makes the unusual choice of inserting himself into the action – almost as if the material is not strong enough to stand up on its own, which is definitely not the case.  There are jarring moments when we are fully immersed in von Mahlsdorf’s story, only to veer suddenly back into the narcissism of Wright’s artistic mission.  Why are we hearing about grant money when we’re halfway through Mahlsdorf’s account of her involvement with the Stasi?  

With the frequent character changes and temporal shifts, the play becomes unwieldy and fragmented…more an actor’s tour de force than a satisfying narrative.  But it should be pointed out – I’m very much in the minority here – the play won Wright a Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize.  Mahlsdorf’s experiences are truly compelling but perhaps by relying on the limiting structure of a one-person show, the play lacked the coherence to fully inhabit any one perspective.  This is the point I suppose, but it makes for disjointed viewing.

I Am My Own Wife runs until October 29th at Studio Underground.  Tickets here

Photos: Black Swan Theatre

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1 thought on “Stranger than fiction”

  1. Couldn’t agree more, with Bromilow’s assessment. It was an acting tour de force to keep the audience in the game.

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