Self-sufficiency in extremis
I Am My Own Wife
Sacramento, CA 95814
Back in 2004, a far-left-field entry called I Am My Own Wife won the Pulitzer Prize for drama, a Tony award for best play and other accolades. It’s a one-man show, and the central character is a shy, elderly German transvestite devoted to collecting memorabilia from the 1890s who somehow manages to survive under the security-obsessed, homophobic Nazi and Communist regimes.
Given the singular nature of the subject matter and the tendency of local theater companies to focus on more mainstream material, it was a good bet that it would be a while before I Am My Own Wife was staged here. But fortunately, the B Street Theatre’s B3 Series has undertaken the project (and for those of us who’ve occasionally pigeonholed B Street for producing audience-friendly comedies, let’s acknowledge that the B3 Series has staged the first local productions of multiple recent Pulitzer winners, including Rabbit Hole, Wit, Doubt, and now I Am My Own Wife).
The casting in this production is eye-catching. Greg Alexander, an actor most often seen in kooky comic roles, plays the transvestite and all the other roles well.
B Street audiences are so conditioned to associating Alexander with humor that when the lights came up at I Am My Own Wife to reveal Alexander wearing a dress, a head scarf and a string of pearls, there were titters of laughter. But Alexander, speaking in accented English (mixed with German), moved into the character of Charlotte von Mahlsdorf. Born Lothar Berfelde, she is a most elusive personality whose story is at once fascinating and very hard to pin down.
Charlotte invites us into her museum, where she keeps old gramophones, clocks and, in the basement, the perfectly preserved furnishings from an old Berlin cabaret. She describes how, during the Nazi years, she preserved old recordings of music by Jewish composers by putting fake labels over the originals.
Charlotte is a chameleon and an unobtrusive survivor in several ways, gathering antique items for her museum, often as they are about to be destroyed. Eventually, she gets entangled in the difficult times, including a run-in with the Stasi (the East German secret police). Her reaction to the “anything goes” world of Berlin after unification is fascinating.
Alexander, working with director David Pierini, slowly brings out more and more of this shy, exceedingly polite and very knowledgeable character. We eventually learn that Charlotte killed her Nazi father and “betrayed” another collector (though that may not be the right word). And we’re never quite sure that what we’re hearing is entirely true.
It’s a convincing and endearing performance. Even though it’s possible that there might be a few remaining nuances in the complex script that weren’t fully expressed, I Am My Own Wife is a standout show.