Based on the life of Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, Doug Wright’s Pulitzer and Tony-winning play I Am My Own Wife is typically performed as a one-person show by a male actor. Director Andrew Volkoff’s production, which launches About Face Theatre’s 2016-17 season, re-imagines the play with a cast of four: transgender actor Delia Kropp, complemented by Scott Duff, Ninos Baba, and Matt Holzfeind. The results of this experiment are hit-and-miss, although the strength of Wright’s docudrama, as well as the play’s lead actor, does much to buoy the production.
I Am My Own Wife tells the story of Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, a woman whose existence Wright asserts early on is “an impossibility.” Von Mahlsdorf, a transvestite museum curator born in 1928, lived through two of the most oppressive regimes in recent history: the Third Reich and the subsequent communist dictatorship. Wright (as a character in the play) sets out to interview von Mahlsdorf before it is too late, aiming to translate her remarkable story to the stage while running into the possibility that her story may just be too good to be true.
If there is one reason to see About Face’s new staging, it is the performance of Delia Kropp. As Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, Kropp crafts a performance that is both mercurial and genuine. Von Mahlsdorf at times is nonchalant in telling some of the more fascinating moments of her life, while others–such as details about an attic where men and women, gay and straight, occupied their time on various beds and couches–are savored with a wry coyness. Her portrayal is powerful and alluring, drawing you in like the Mona Lisa’s smile.
Compared to Kropp, the other actors do less to draw you into von Mahlsdorf’s story. At times, their presence halts the piece’s momentum, which has been gently calibrated by Kropp. While Volkoff’s staging presents some interesting visuals for the four actors, it is when Kropp is speaking that the audience is truly at attention. Holzfeind, who has the unenviable task of portraying a dozen different characters with a dizzying array of dialects, stumbled multiple times when shifting roles on opening night. At times, his affectations rang more of rural Ireland than Berlin, despite Christine Adaire’s presence as dialect coach for the production.
Brian Prather’s scenic design, reminiscent of a clock face, provides Volkoff and company with a large circular playing space from which to share von Mahsldorf’s life. Supported by John Kelly’s subtle and emotionally evocative lighting design and embellished by Sarah Espinoza’s sound design and period costumes by Bob Kuhn, the visual world of I Am My Own Wife is rich and theatrical. In some ways, this new interpretation emboldens certain aspects of the original material, connecting it with current events by focusing on a trans actor. However, when it comes to one of the play’s central questions, the reliability of its narrator, the presence of three other actors serves to cloud the lens through which audiences view the play, distancing our own views about the veracity of her tale.
I Am My Own Wife will play through December 10 at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave. Tickets are currently available at aboutfacetheatre.com, by calling 773-975-8150 or in person at the Theater Wit Box Office.