The ongoing proliferation of solos in the theater has generated a powerful wave of innovation. Not so long ago, audiences could expect wide variations in subject matter, but in form, not so much. Whether the part was Mark Twain or Huey Newton, Emily Dickinson or Lenny Bruce, the performer would typically impersonate a single individual and stay put in that role for the entire night. I Am My Own Wife, Doug Wright’s fascinating deconstruction of the tangled lives that converge around the historical figure of Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, at once subverts and exceeds the expectations established by the traditional one-person show. The playwright’s sophisticated deployment of various extended theatrical techniques adds to the pleasure of this richly layered account of a life spent in the shadows of first the Nazis and then the communists of East Berlin.
Instead of a unified point of view delivered entirely in the first-person singular, I Am My Own Wife strings together more than two dozen perspectives into a glittering kaleidoscope with an engaging enigma at its constantly shifting center. The brilliant actor John Tufts handles the show’s frequent shifts in time frame and in format with remarkable tact and dexterity. Thanks to Jenny Sullivan’s inspired direction, even the most unexpected changes arrive from within a fully articulated dramatic design. From the chapter titles projected on the set to the dollhouse-sized furniture Charlotte uses to illustrate a description of her Gründerzeit Museum, all the separate pieces of this performance puzzle consistently add up to something more interesting and tantalizing than the sum of the parts.
The plot hinges on the inclusion of the playwright’s perspective, which details his discovery of Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, a cross-dressing antique collector whose “museum” served for decades as a key meeting place for LGBT citizens of the repressive East German state. As the character “Doug Wright” gets closer to finishing his proposed play based on what he perceives as a heroic example of gay resistance to fascism, the self-serving account he has received from Charlotte begins to crumble. Perhaps she has been lying about how she behaved, especially when the Stasi came and asked for cooperation in rounding up other homosexuals. At one point, the voice of a psychiatrist announces that Charlotte’s autobiography may be something she has come to believe because “the repetition of these fantasies is palliative.” Faced with a fundamental uncertainty about his source, the playwright in the play must in turn confront his own motives. It’s in this last, final act of self-conscious reflection that I Am My Own Wife achieves its ultimate moment of liberation.