Charlotte von Mahlsdorf was a collector and museum curator in East Berlin who survived WWII and the the Stasis, and murdered her abusive father when she was a teenager. More remarkably, she was transgender. I Am My Own Wife is primarily her biography and a tribute to her achievements, but also the research process by playwright Doug Wright. Wright set out to make a play about her, but was so affected by her stories that his reactions make their way into the text. It deservedly won all major American theatre awards after its Broadway premier in 2003, but Unusual Theatre Company’s production doesn’t serve the text as well as it could.
What with this play being a solo performance, the actor must be exceptional in order to hold the audience’s attention for an hour and a half. Steven Mann has the vocal dexterity and skill with accents needed to capture the numerous characters in the script, but his physicality is inflexible and manly. He lacks feminine lightness of carriage and gesture when embodying Charlotte; whilst not all women necessarily have these traits, a man playing a woman must display stereotypical female indicators to avoid being read as a man. A movement director would have been a huge help here as the performance in largely above the neck.
Wright’s script is a compelling story, and his use of other characters gives Charlotte’s life more importance as they all focus on her. She’s a complex character brought fully to life, and her candidness and charm is undeniable. It’s not worshipful though, as it considers her involvement with the Stasis and her public reputation.
The design also doesn’t quite manage to be employed as well as it should. Charlotte loved antique furniture but the table and chair that are most of the set are generic, black box studio pieces. A phonograph is the singular example of the beautiful things she collected and whilst this gives it focus, it feels out of place on the stage. Lighting designer Alistair Lindsay goes overboard with a rainbow of coloured lights that feel tacky against Charlotte’s delicateness. Apart from a skirt inappropriately worn on the hips and a string of pearls, Mann’s costume is men’s clothing. Women’s shoes and a more feminine blouse would have certainly supported a more female physicality.
Mann’s gift with voice acting and Wright’s words are this production’s strengths, but it has pronounced shortcomings. Fortunately they are easily fixable in advance of the show’s Edinburgh run.
I Am My Own Wife runs through 3 June.
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