had earlier premiered the ground breaking play “The Laramie Project,” Wright was fully adept at the process of creating documentary style theater, a play that built from actual interviews with people who lived the experiences being recreated on stage, actors performing real-life characters using the actual words collected in the interview.
When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 and travel was permitted into East Berlin for the first time since 1961, word began to spread about a woman named Charlotte Von Mahlsdorff, an elderly antique dealer who ran a museum in her home. Charlotte was an openly transgender woman; people then referred to her as a transvestite. When Doug Wright learned that a transgender woman had somehow survived not only the communist regime of East Germany, but the Nazis before that, he set out to build a play around her experiences, using actual interviews, which he taped face-to-face over the course of a few years.
Wright decided to emphasize the play’s tale of isolation and endurance by having all 40 characters, including himself and Charlotte, played by one single actor.
The result, “I Am My Own Wife,” is as much Wright’s journey as it is Charlotte Von Mahlsdorff’s, something much deeper, richer, complex and mysterious than a mere survivor story. It premiered on Broadway in 2003, winning the Tony for Best new play, and going on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
In 2006, working with director Jennifer King, North Bay Actor Stephen Abbott tackled ‘I Am My Own Wife’ at Sonoma County Repertory Theater, a brilliantly-staged performance that played sell-out crowds. Four years later, Abbott and King remounted the show at Spreckels Performing Arts Center, with similar results. And now, nine years after first playing Charlotte Von Mahlsdorff, Abbott is doing it once again, this time at Cinnabar Theater in Petaluma.
While it seems impossible to improve upon perfection, Abbott is doing just that. He is once again working with director King, who recently visited Germany and toured the real-life home and museum of Von Mahsldorff, who died in 2002 at the age of 74. That up-close-and-personal touch has only deepened the show, King introducing tiny details on which Abbott builds his characters, each one a bit more real, more clearly defined and complicated than ever.
Regardless of how one ultimately feels about Von Mahlsdorff, and the questions of how she actually survived her years under brutal totalitarian regimes, this is an impressive work of art. Was she telling the truth with stories of killing her Nazi father with a rolling pin and turning a beloved gay friend over to the communists at his request? Did she really operate a gay brothel under the eyes of one of the most oppressive governments in history? Some of her stories are easier to swallow than others. Perhaps it was her ability to tell tall tales, to spin the truth her own way, part of what allowed her to survive in such an impossible set of situations? Either way, Abbott fully embodies the heart and soul of this extraordinary human being, showing her from the inside out, along with scores of the family, friends, soldiers, neighbors, customers, journalists and visitors she met along the way.
As an extraordinary feat of first-rate theater, “I am My Own Wife” is a must see. As an inspiring, true-ish tale of living as your heart guides you, existing by your own rules, it could even, for some, be nothing short of life-changing.
“I Am My Own Wife” runs through February 22 at Cinnabar theater, cinnabartheater.org.