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Washington DC by Susan Berlin

I Am My Own Wife

Also see Susan's review of Nest

I Am My Own Wife
Arnie Burton
Olney Theatre Center's production of I Am My Own Wife is a multi-faceted jewel, which has been given the perfect setting in the small Mulitz-Gudelsky Theatre Lab in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, DC. The viewer gets drawn in by the stark simplicity of Marie Anne Chiment's scenic design an almost bare room with a sharply skewed perspective then gasps when Mitchell Dana's lighting design reveals its unsuspected depths.

Director John Going and actor Arnie Burton have a thorough knowledge of Doug Wright's Pulitzer Prize-winning 2003 play: they worked together on an earlier, award-winning production in St. Louis. Burton has the ability as an actor to create a seemingly endless series of characters, and to do it convincingly while wearing (with a single brief exception) a demure black dress, pearls and a head scarf.

I Am My Own Wife is a biographical portrait of a remarkable survivor, but it's also an investigation of the nature of truth. The central character, Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, is always convinced of her honesty, even when she's facing evidence of things she would rather not accept. In this case, the truth is like a funhouse: the same mirrors that show the exterior of a person also can conceal deeper realities.

Charlotte may well be, as she is described in the play, "the most singular, eccentric individual the Cold War has birthed." Born Lothar Berfelde in 1928, Charlotte always knew she wanted to be a woman, despite a male body. She began wearing dresses in her teens (a moment sharpened by Dana's use of prismatic shafts of light), and ultimately outlived both the Nazis and the East German Communists. Her fascination with late 19th-century décor led to her life's work, a museum showcasing gramophones, clocks, hand-carved furniture and other furnishings of the period. She also became active in the German gay community, and died in 2002.

The structure of the play comes from the playwright's pursuit of Charlotte, and what he learned through his interviews with her and other sources, specifically the declassified files of the East German secret police, the Stasi.

Burton has a remarkably malleable face and, most notably, eyes that draw in the viewer: glittering sharply, melting ingenuously, glaring with scorn and disgust. He's also a master of accents and dialects, depicting Wright, the gay New Yorker; his journalist friend John Marks, who attempts to blend German with his southern accent; and brief, incisive sketches of everyone from skinheads and female college students to a fey television host.

Sound composer Joe Payne further draws the audience into Charlotte's world, most strikingly through the use of German-language recordings of popular songs.

Olney Theatre Center
I Am My Own Wife
April 18th May 27th
By Doug Wright
Charlotte von Mahlsdorf and others: Arnie Burton
Directed by John Going
Mulitz-Gudelsky Theatre Lab, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road
Olney, MD
Ticket Information: 301-924-3400 or www.olneytheatre.org


Photo: Stan Barouh


-- Susan Berlin


Also see the Current Theatre Season Calendar for D.C.



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