I Am My Own Wife @ The Pearse Centre
February 4, 2011
Having survived both the Nazi and Stasi regimes while living her life openly as a transvestite, it is no wonder that one character refers to Lothar Berfelde aka Charlotte von Mahlsdorf as ” the most singular, eccentric individual the Cold War ever birthed “. Her home in East Berlin acted as a safe haven for relics of a bygone era (which she opened to the public as a museum), as well as to the driven underground gay scene who flocked to a perfectly preserved gay bar in her basement during the 1960s. Piquing the interest of playwright Doug Wright, who summed her story up as “a slam dunk (grant) proposal”; he enshrined Charlotte’s memory in this Pulitzer Prize winning piece, a questionable valentine to an undoubted enigma.
Brought to the stage by Glass Doll Productions, this is a bold start for a company who make their debut with Wright’s one-man show. Committing 44 characters and 46 pages of script to memory, Donncha O Dea (as Charlotte) makes the switch from part to part both smoothly and shrewdly, never letting the change pull focus from the story as the vocal and physical decisions he makes are so fluently pulled of we hardly notice them.
Director Tracy Martin (of Pony Girl’s fame, a pioneering force in Irish alternative cabaret) makes each transformation clear and purposeful and it never lapses into staid recitation. Using a variety of accents, subtle gestures and cues of light and sound, O Dea delicately balances Charlotte’s male and female sensibilities and never lets the fact that he is playing a “tranny granny” become the point of his character. He plays Charlotte so humbly, so unassuming, that the dark frock and pearls she dons are absorbed quickly and forgotten about, so even though he might switch to playing an over the top television host, a southern journalist or a Nazi officer, the costume never detracts from the portrayal as it has been neutralized by O Dea’s performance. And when the circumstances of Charlotte’s survival turn out not to be as remarkable as she made them seem, our sense of disappointment is unpalatable.
In a year where many emerging theatre makers played so successfully with traditional structures, narratives and styles we should also applaud emerging companies who stage plays where the words are the focus and not the manner in which they are presented.
Yet it is in Doug Wright’s script that this production’s one fatal flaw is contained. Having grown up gay in the Bible belt, his need to believe that a story like Charlotte’s could have really happened outweighs his responsibility as a playwright to get to the heart of the character. The deeper he gets into the murky waters of Charlotte’s past the less willing he seems to be to tell it. And while he poses all the right questions (How could she afford to keep her museum going? Was she a Stasi agent?) he never ponders the answers, leaving us to make sense of her life ourselves but not arming us with the details. Charlotte is allowed tell her tale but her critics are reduced to one line interjections so that while he bangs the drum on her supposed achievements, he never tries to validate them.
Wright tries to redress the balance by making the show not just about Charlotte but also about their working relationship and his struggle to come to terms with what he finds out, and although an interesting concept it never makes its dent. He is too invested in “The Charlotte Story” to question the human propensity to build up and break down icons, or question the nature of the relationship between artist and subject. The separate agendas we all have with the past are stated here but never studied and you never learn anything about Charlotte that a quick glance at her Wikipedia page wouldn’t tell you.
“She doesn’t run a museum. She is one,” says Wright of Charlotte. “And I’m curating her.” Unfortunately he’s cased her in reflective glass so that, despite O Dea’s compelling efforts, Charlotte can never become flesh and bone.
By Doug Wright
25 January 2011 – 06 February 2011
Produced by Glass Doll Productions
In The Pearse Centre