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Theatre Review

PlayMakers Repertory Company: I Am My Own Wife Features a Virtuoso Performance by John Feltch and Superb Staging by Julie Fishell

September 13, 2006 - Chapel Hill, NC:

This week, PlayMakers Repertory Company opens its new second-stage series, with an absolutely luminous production of Doug Wright’s provocative 2004 Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award®-winning one-man show, I Am My Own Wife, directed by Julie Fishell and performed by John Feltch. The two PlayMakers mainstays combine to bring controversial German transvestite and Gründerzeit Museum founder Charlotte von Mahlsdorf (1928-2002)—and about three dozen of her contemporaries—to full, glorious life.

Born Lothar Berfelde in Berlin-Mahlsdorf, Charlotte (pronounced “Char-lot-tah”) miraculously survived the Third Reich and the German Democratic Republic (a.k.a. Deutsche Demokratische Republik or East Germany) wearing women’s clothes and forging romantic liaisons with (mostly) older men. Detractors later claimed that in the GDR, the price for her survival to run the Gründerzeit Museum unmolested was serving as an informant for the Stasi (the dreaded East German secret police from the Ministerium für Staatssicherheit).

In I Am My Own Wife, Charlotte explains her side of her forced involvement with Stasi—and tell many other stories about her life as a little boy who grew up with an irresistible impulse to wear women’s clothes and an unquenchable passion to collect and, eventually, display everyday objects from turn-of-the-century Germany (circa 1890-1900), especially ancient gramophones, their fragile recordings, kitschy clocks, and equally kitschy miniature furniture.

John Feltch gives a virtuoso performance as Charlotte—the preternaturally calm and sensitive center of so many explosive episodes—as well as about three dozen of Charlotte’s family members, friends, and enemies. Watching Feltch smoothly segue from interviewee (Charlotte) to interviewer (playwright Doug Wright, U.S. News & World Report Berlin bureau chief John Marks, and a bombastic German television talk-show host) is a veritable clinic in the actor’s art. Feltch also creates distinctive personalities, postures, and mannerisms for Charlotte’s favorite aunt (lesbian Tante Luise), a fellow antique dealer (and erstwhile lover) whom Charlotte denounced to Stasi (she says at his insistence, so he could take the fall for an illegal enterprise that could have landed them both in grim GDR prison cells), and many, many other truly unforgettable characters.

While John Feltch is running—and winning—this two-act, two-hour actor’s marathon, director Julie Fishell does a masterful job of coaxing the absolute best from her fellow PRC company member. Fishell leavens the script with imagination, style, and wit and supplements the dialogue with scene titles and photographs projected on an overhead video screen for comic or dramatic effect.

Set designer Michelle Moody does vividly recreates Charlotte von Mahlsdorf’s living quarters at the Gründerzeit Museum—and various other locations—and lighting designer Todd Campbell keeps the spotlight right where it should be throughout the show. Costume designer Traci Meek outfits Feltch is a simple ensemble of dark clothing, a dark head kerchief, and clunky orthopedic shoes (a fashion plate Charlotte was not), and supplements this basic costume with a yellow-striped prison outfit and assorted add-ons that help Feltch (and the audience) differentiate character from character. Sound designer and composer Michel Marrano also makes sizable contributions to the show, with his soundscape and lovely original music providing a soundtrack that adds authenticity to the proceedings.

PRC’s powerful second-stage presentation of I Am My Own Wife, which made a big splash at this summer’s Stoneleaf Theatre Festival in Asheville, received a lengthy standing ovation after last night’s performance—its first in Chapel Hill. This standing ovation is surely only the first of many that this standout production will receive during its all-too-brief Triangle run, which ends Sunday afternoon.

PlayMakers Repertory Company presents I Am My Own Wife Thursday-Saturday, Sept. 14-16, at 8 p.m. and Sunday, Sept. 17, at 2 p.m. in the Elizabeth Price Kenan Theatre in the Center for Dramatic Art at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. $24-$32, except $10 Student Rush tickets available 90 minutes before each curtain. 919/962-PLAY (7529) or or etix via the presenters' site. Note 1: PRC offers an assisted listening system and wheelchair seating at each performance. Note 2: There will be an all-access performance on Sept. 14th, with Braille and large-print programs, audio description by Arts Access, Inc. (http://www.artsaccessinc.org/), and sign-language interpretation. Note 3: There will be post-show discussions Sept. 14th (hosted by Alice Kuzniar and Richard Langston of the UNC Department of Germanic Languages), Sept. 15th (hosted by Dr. Leon Katz, the David G. Frey Distinguished Professor of Dramatic Art), Sept. 16th (hosted by director Julie Fishell and actor John Feltch), and Sept. 17th (hosted by Fishell and Feltch). PlayMakers Repertory Company: http://www.playmakersrep.org/genPage/index.pl?pgid=111 [inactive 8/07]. I Am My Own Wife: http://www.iammyownwife.com/. Internet Broadway Database: http://www.ibdb.com/show.asp?ID=11252. Charlotte Von Mahlsdorf: http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0902653/ (Internet Movie Database). Gründerzeit Museum: http://www.gruenderzeitmuseum.de/ [inactive 4/08] (German).