AdlFringe Review: I Am My Own Wife

by Jane

Charles Mayer in I AM MY OWN WIFE. Photo courtesy of 3rd Culture Theatre

On a trip to Berlin-Mahlsdorf in the years following the fall of the Berlin Wall, American playwright Doug Wright found the Gründerzeit Museum, a museum of furniture, gramophones, and records: everyday items which can seem insignificant, but truly capture history.

Wright was taken by the collection, but in particular the woman who ran it. Charlotte von Mahlsdorf. Mahlsdorf, born Lothar Berfelde in 1928, began living as a woman post the fall of the Third Reich, and her museum became known as a safe space in East Berlin’s gay circles. By the time Wright met her, she had lead an almost unbelievable life.

From recorded conversations with Mahlsdorf, news reports, and official files, Wright built up a verbatim theatre piece, with one actor playing all of the roles. Most of the show is filtered through Wright or Mahlsdorf, but through Mahlsdorf’s memories the play brings to life her family, friends, members of the SS and later the Stasi, to build up a portrait of this woman, her time as a transgender person through such turbulent times in Germany, and her museum.

In this production, actor Charles Mayer takes to the stage, directed by Craig Behenna. The small stage (framed by what is truly a remarkably and distractingly bad paint job where the black framing the stage reaches the off-white surrounding the seating bank) is sparsely but carefully adorned: a few pieces of furniture that would fit at home amongst Mahlsdorf’s collection, and strings of light bulbs bring a warmth to the space.

While the most obvious change between characters is their accents and vocal inflections (although occasionally a German character or two had a tendency to traverse closer to the British Isles) the most interesting feature of Mayer’s performance is in subtle transformations in his physicality.

Occasionally, Mayer and Behenna rely too much on this highlighting of physical opposition between characters, and a dance between sitting and standing becomes overly complex for what it is attempting to add to the story. While the promo material talks of the 43 characters, there are only a handful of primary characters, and rarely a scene with more than two, and the production is stronger when it leans on the text and nuance in Mayer’s performance, rather than playing too much with the blocking.

The play documents Wright’s journey in creating the play almost as much as Mahlsdorf’s story, and some of the nicer moments, too, come when Mayer reaches his performance out directly to members of the audience. While much of Wright’s play delves into heavy subjects, he plays these against the lighter moments, bringing humour to the work and a lightness to Mahlsdorf’s perspective on life.

Verbatim theatre is an interesting beast. A type of documentary theatre, it uses the original text or language of its source material and brings it to life on stage. One of the things that needs to be questioned in this form, though, is how true the original source material was. From a primary source, it’s easy to assume reliability, and some of the more interesting moments here are when Wright’s play brings into question if Mahlsdorf is indeed a reliable narrator of her own story.

At 100 minutes, I Am My Own Wife runs long for a Fringe show but it truly finds itself and comes into its own as a text and a performance in the second act. Mayer and Behenna keep the show moving at a quick pace, and the story is one that will leave me fascinated for a long time to come.

Blue Lane productions presents I Am My Own Wife by Doug Wright. Directed by Craig Behenna, costume design by Joanna Czutkowna, performed by Charles Mayer. At the Bakehouse Theatre Studio for the Adelaide Fringe until March 2nd. More information and tickets.