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Geneva Anderson digs into art

Review: Cinnabar Theater’s “I am My Own Wife”—a crafty and true survival tale featuring Steven Abbott as 36 characters, through February 22, 2015

Cinnabar's Steven Abbott stars in “I Am My Own Wife,” the astonishing one man show about a cross-dressing man, Lothar Berfelde, who took on a woman’s identity and lived in East Germany throughout its Communist era.  As Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, Berfelde created the Grunderzeit Museum of Mahlsdorf, a museum of artifacts commemorating the pre-WWI furniture, household objects and culture that he loved.  The play, by Doug Wright, won the Pulitzer Prize and the Tony Award for Best Play, 2004. Photo: Eric Chazankin

Cinnabar’s Steven Abbott stars in “I Am My Own Wife,” the astonishing one man show about a cross-dressing man, Lothar Berfelde, who took on a woman’s identity, Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, and lived in East Germany throughout its Nazi and Communist eras. Charlotte von Mahlsdorf’s exquisite collection of pre-WWI furniture and objects eventually became the Grunderzeit Museum of Mahlsdorf. The play, by Doug Wright, won the Pulitzer Prize and the Tony Award for Best Play, 2004. Photo: Eric Chazankin

You do what you have to do to survive—that’s the underlying theme of Doug Wright’s stunning one man play, I Am My Own Wife, at Cinnabar Theater through February 22.  Dressed in a baggy black dress and pearls, transgender Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, who was born  a man, survived both the Nazi and East German Communist regimes with her unique identity intact.  She also ran a thriving Weimar cabaret in her basement, managed to amass an important collection of late 19th century antiques and became a decorated national hero.  On the down side, she murdered her abusive father and may have betrayed her friends and colleagues by informing on them to the Stasi, the dreaded East German secret police.  Director Jennifer King and actor Steven Abbott team up for the third time to present this remarkable solo show, which burst onto Broadway in 2004 and won every major honor, including the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the Tony Award for Best Play.

The reason to go—the entrancing Steven Abbott, well-known to Cinnabar audiences for A Couple of Blaguards and No Regrets: The Songs of Edith Paif.   Abott plays transgender Charlotte von Mahlsdorf and 35 other distinct characters who were in her life with seamless fluidity, transitioning from one to the other with just the slightest inflection of voice or movements of his sparkling eyes.  It’s a study in perfect alchemy.

Transgender refers to a person who identifies with the male/female role opposite their birth gender.  Charlotte von Mahldorf was born Lothar Berfelde in Germany in 1928.  Both the Nazi and Communist regimes would have labeled her a sexual deviant and sought to kill her, had they known.  The performance begins as Charlotte looks at the audience, smiles and shows us a delightful antique cylinder phonograph,  She then proceeds to lead us on a tour of her home, a private museum in Mahlsdorf, a suburb of East Berlin.  Soon we are aware that the sparsely appointed Cinnabar stage, with its elegant European double doors, blue patterned wall paper, two tables, two antique chairs, phonograph and vast black fabric wings on each side, represents a vast floor-to-ceiling collection of von Mahldorf’s fine late 19th century antiques—sideboards, gramophones, clocks, etc.  And in this collection of artifacts, which is now the celebrated Gründerzeit Museum, is her precious life story.  We also learn that, before her home became a museum, it was a safe haven for people the State denied the right to exist because of their sexual orientation.

It was just after the fall of the Berlin Wall that American playwright Doug Wright learned about Charlotte from his journalist friend, Texan John Marks, the Berlin bureau chief for U.S. News & World Report.  Marks had discovered her in 1992 when she was giving guided tours of her extensive collection of antiques.  Wright traveled to the former East Germany to interview Charlotte on several occasions.  Around that time too, noted German filmmaker Rosa von Praunheim made a documentary about von Mahlsdorf, I Am My Own Woman (1992) (Ich bin meine eigene Frau) and her autobiography I Am My Own Woman: The Outlaw Life of Charlotte von Mahldorf  came out in 1995.  Wright was so overwhelmed with the breadth of Charlotte’s story that it took him several years to develop the material into the play and he actually inserted himself into it.

It was his discovery of Charlotte’s extensive Stasi file which claimed that she, like many other East German citizens, had not only been a subject of surveillance but also been an informant for that oppressive regime that left him conflicted.  How could the subject of his respect and admiration have carried out such a betrayal?

In a tour de force performance at Cinnabar Theater, Steven Abbott plays all 36 parts in the Tony Award-winning solo show “I Am My Own Wife.” Photo: Eric Chazankin

In a tour de force performance at Cinnabar Theater, Steven Abbott plays all 36 parts in the Tony Award-winning solo show “I Am My Own Wife.” Photo: Eric Chazankin

According to director Jennifer King,  “the tension resulting from the ethical implications about von Mahlsdorf’s alleged complicity with this monstrous regime is just one of many factors that make this an extraordinary subject for theatre.”

Tackling dozens of characters is a herculean task that Abbott handles in masterful stints of split second shifts.  Some of those fascinating roles are frustratingly underdeveloped.  As a journalist, I was hungry for more of Wright’s story and for more detail about Charlotte’s father who drove her to commit murder.  What does come through in this 100 minute performance is the sheer complexity of von Mahlsdorf’s personality and the scars exacted by life under fascism.  Abbott’s close to the chest depiction of Charlotte, who speaks matter of factly in an emotionally detached manner, is most engrossing.  He plays her as an artifact that is tightly, brilliantly curated never admitting or denying Stasi complicity.  Of course, we all know that, when presented correctly, moral quandaries can be the most intensely dramatic dilemmas of all and Cinnabar’s  I am My Own Wife is indeed a gem of many facets.

Creative Team:   written by Doug Wright; directed by Jennifer King; staring Mike Abbott; staging by Ross Tiffany-Brown; Lighting by Wayne Hovey; sound by Joe Winkler; costume consultant Lisa Eldredge; set construction by Mike Acorn, Joe Elwick, Aloysha Klebe & Ross Tiffany-Brown

Details: There are 6 remaining performances of “I Am My Own Wife” but several of these are sold out.  Limited tickets are still available for Friday, Feb 20 (8 PM); Sat, Feb 21(8 PM) and Sunday, Feb 22 (2 PM).  *Please note: Cinnabar advises that this show is best appreciated by ages 15 and up due to adult content.  Youth ages 12-18 who are interested in seeing the show are encouraged to attend Friday Night Live on 2/6, when a speaker from Positive Images, Santa Rosa, will help provide context on the story. Tickets for this event are only $9.

Cinnabar Theater is located at 3333 Petaluma Blvd. North (at Skillman Lane), Petaluma, CA, 94952.  Buy tickets online here.  For more information, visit cinnabartheater.org.

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February 12, 2015 - Posted by | Theatre | , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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