In 1992, celebrated playwright Doug Wright (Quills) met with Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, a 64-year-old transvestite who turned her East German home into a loving museum for antique phonographs and priceless furniture. Already the subject of a German documentary and the author of a popular autobiography, Mahlsdorf was a minor celebrity. Known as the Granny Tranny, she survived both the Nazi regime and the postwar occupation of East Germany while wearing heels and pearls.
Charmed by her willful eccentricity and demure bearing, Wright became passionately convinced that Mahlsdorf was the perfect role model for homosexual acceptance and understated resistance in the face of overwhelming repression. The playwright transcribed more than 500 pages of interviews and unearthed a large collection of government files in order to compose a play about her life. But when his research revealed she worked with the Stasi (the East German secret police) and willingly informed on others, Wright suffered a crisis of faith.
Struggling with the knowledge, his script lay fallow until 2000 when he met acclaimed director and playwright Moisés Kaufman. Known for his documentary-style theatrical works (Gross Indecency: The Three Trials Of Oscar Wilde and The Laramie Project), Kaufman helped Wright refocus the story on his own journey uncovering the truth about Charlotte.
The final product I Am My Own Wife became a one-man semiautobiographical tour de force that went on to win the 2004 Pulitzer Prize, a Tony Award and other theatrical honors. A personal and insightful examination of constructed identities and understated duplicity, Wright's play paints an affectionate portrait of a complex heroine.
The script, which boasts nearly 40 characters played by one actor, including an obnoxious German talk show host and the playwright himself, is a web of subtle narrative shifts. The piece requires a deft directorial hand and an actor who understands subtle character motivation. Recognizing these demands, Ann Arbor's Performance Network enlisted two accomplished veterans Gillian Eaton and Malcolm Tulip to bring Wright's extraordinary tale to Michigan for the first time. It's not quite a catastrophe, but it's a disappointing evening of theater.
Eaton's straightforward direction, perfectly adequate for any number of plays, is distant and flat here, missing the grace notes necessary for such a convoluted script. Part of the problem is Tulip's frequent upstage delivery. Working against both the play and the venue's intimacy, Eaton pushes too many important moments away from the audience. While Charlotte may seek to keep her motives hidden behind a mask of understated civility, the audience should be able to watch her close up.
Eaton also misses numerous opportunities for dramatic storytelling. When relating the confrontation that led to her abusive father's murder, Charlotte carefully displays dollhouse-size stand-ins (a conceit borrowed from Kaufman's production) for her antique furniture collection. Instead of helping set the scene, however, the props seem like perfunctory, disconnected stage business.
Tulip, an otherwise terrific actor, works overtime to delineate the story's numerous characters but has trouble capturing their underlying emotions or complexities. His performance hints that Charlotte's decidedly modest demeanor hides something deeper and darker, but the portrait still seems to be under construction. His dizzying array of supporting roles fares worse. On several occasions especially in the second act Tulip struggles to keep his head above the play's rising waters. Lesser characters seem vaguely defined, important reactions are lost, and several of the German personalities begin to bleed together.
Most notably, Tulip fails to give Wright, the narrator, enough emotional investment. The playwright's naive adoration then sad acceptance of Charlotte's flawed persona is essential to the play's foundation. Without it, the story becomes little more than historical curiosity.
Ann Arbor's Performance Network may be one of the few theater companies in the region dedicated to bringing sophisticated and challenging work to the boards but with I Am My Own Wife, their ambitions may have outstripped their abilities.
Runs 8 p.m., Thursdays-Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m., Sundays through Aug. 27, at Performance Network Theatre, 120 E. Huron St., Ann Arbor; 734-663-0681.
Jeff Meyers writes about film and theater for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org