A major service provided by outfits such as Asheville Community Theatre and Haywood Arts Regional Theatre can only be found on their second stages, where material perceived to be far too modern and daring for mainstage audiences can fearlessly be offered and explored. Such is presently the case at ACT’s 35below, with Doug Wright’s unusual 2004 Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize winner, I Am My Own Wife. Where else in the WNC area would one be likely to see a biographical portrait of a transvestite who managed to survive first the Nazis and then the East German secret police, the Stasi?
The story of Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, born Lothar Berfelde in 1928, is incredible enough to have supported retellings in print and on film, as well as on the stage. Freed relatively early in life to pursue his/her natural inclinations by the intervention of a lesbian aunt (and thenceforward to refer to himself as a woman), von Mahlsdorf claimed to have bludgeoned her father to death in an act of self-defense. Her intense interest in the everyday life of the late nineteenth century prompted her to become a collector of antique furnishings, and to run her own Gründerzeit museum, in the basement of which she secreted what she could salvage of an early gay and lesbian bar. A somewhat confused and confusing avatar and, betimes, heroine of homosexual and transgendered people, she even received the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany, before much she had reported of her past — including the killing of her father — was called into question. Most important, she turned out to have informed for the Stasi, perhaps ratting out someone very close to her. The truth about her, though, and much of her reputation, went with her to the grave in 2002.
But not before playwright Doug Wright had spent several years conducting independent research as well as interviews with von Mahlsdorf herself. The resulting one-man tour de force recounts not only von Mahlsdorf’s life, but Wright’s efforts to understand and dramatize it. At first, Wright viewed von Mahlsdorf as a groundbreaking champion of sexual liberation. Later, unpleasant revelations about von Mahlsdorf forced Wright to reevaluate his stance toward her, and how to present her onstage.
His solution was to incorporate himself, his colleagues and his dilemma into the story. Despite the play’s overall success, the frequent intrusion of the playwright as a character, while clarifying incidents and implications, weakens the dramatic impact. But the theatricality of the piece is never in question: A single actor playing not only one of the strangest figures in stage history but also dozens of other people, all while dressed in a simple frock and a single strand of pearls — that’s theatre.
Needless to say, this is not the kind of feat one expects to find assayed by anything less than an incredibly seasoned actor. (The original production starred the remarkable Jefferson Mays, who won a Tony Award for his performance.) Though Peter Tamm — directed at 35below by the Parkway Playhouse’s producing artistic director, Andrew Gall — doesn’t have all the professional chops demanded, he has deep feeling that carries the evening. It’s unfortunate that he isn’t able to supply a reliable German accent as von Mahlsdorf, or sufficient differentiation of vocal timbre, physical posture and facial expression to distinguish clearly the many roles he’s called on to play — though in one brief sequence he does manage delightfully to convince as a variety of reporters from different lands. When we finally hear a recording of the real von Mahlsdorf, it becomes difficult to understand why the choice was made to present her in such halting fashion.
In the end, however, that hardly matters. Provided superior support by his director and design team, Tamm gives his all for two full hours, and — just like the play — succeeds, despite obvious flaws, in creating a thought-provoking, moving experience.
I Am My Own Wife, by Doug Wright. Directed by Andrew Gall. Set design: Jill Summers. Lighting design: Jason Williams. Costume design: Linda Underwood. Property design: Sydney De Briel. Stage Manager: Ewa Skowska. With Peter Tamm (Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, John Marks, Doug Wright, Tante Luise, Herr Berfelde, Alfred Kirschner, SS Officers, Stasi Agent, German Officials, Reporters, Television hosts, et al).
Show runs through Oct. 24. Performances Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. Tickets $15 adults, $10 seniors/students. More info at www.ashevilletheatre.org.