Are you a boy or are you a girl?

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.

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4 thoughts on “Are you a boy or are you a girl?

  1. Batensmack

    I saw this show on opening night and I walked away very impressed with Peter Tamm’s work, Andrew Gall’s direction, and particularly by Jason Williams’ lighting design, but also a little puzzled by what about the play did not resonate fully with me on an emotional level. For me, it had to do with the playwright’s heavy hand in the action, but I wonder if that’s not part of the point?

    I was impressed by Tamm’s emotional availability, but particularly his connection to the character of the playwright. I felt that his portrayal of the playwright showed a level of sensitivity and care that was not as readily apparent in the other characters.

    This choice is understandable, for eventually the play unmasks itself during a direct address as, essentially, a vehicle for the playwright’s topical dilemma – to tell the whole story of von Mahlsdorf with all its twists and turns. However, and this is a critique of the playwright, not the production, one wonders if his need to “believe in von Mahlsdorf” would not have been better served without such juxtaposing. In the end, I have to say that I left with more doubts about the authenticity of von Mahlsdorf’s reminiscences than belief in her version of the story.

    Perhaps, though, this is the point. I certainly left the play with a new appreciation for the hardships of living under the Nazi and then Communist regimes in Berlin. I felt that I had been privilege to an excellent account of what an oppressive business living can be. I did not feel empathy so much for any of the characters, as much as a cerebral analysis of what it was like to live in this time. This “Verfremdungseffekt” was achieved through many deliberate choices – (i.e. by putting the actor in the costume of von Mahlsdorf, though the actual protagonist is the playwright).

    In short, the point is that the theatre-going audience of Asheville would be well-served to see this play and make their own assessments. It is quite an achievement for ACT and the cast/crew of the play. It will be an experience that will stick with you for a long time.

  2. Tiger Lily

    Mr. Samuels seems to think that “transvestite” and “transgendered” are interchangeable. They terms have different meanings.

    Also, his use of the passive voice when he writes “material perceived to be far too modern and daring for mainstage audiences” is confusing. Who, exactly, does Mr. Samuels believe perceives this material to be so radical?

  3. Ben Pounds

    I assume that Mr. Samuels means people at the theatres producing the plays.

  4. Batensmack

    I think that the “mainstage audience,” here, is talking about ACT’s main-stage as opposed to its “35 Below” space.

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