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I Am My Own Wife

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In today’s world of “creative nonfiction,” the way in which personal stories are told seems to have become more fluid. “This is what happened to me” is the unwritten preface, “no matter what the facts may say.”

By Doug Wright
St. Louis Repertory Theatre
Directed by John Going
Through February 3, 2006

I Am My Own Wife is more than the story of Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, a German transvestite (transvesTEET, as she pronounces it), or the experiences of playwright and actor Doug Wright’s with Ms. von Mahlsdorf. It is also an interesting look at the art of storytelling and the confluence of fact and fiction in biography.

Arnie Burton, the solo actor in the production, is especially compelling as Mahlsdorf. The other characters are perhaps a little less believable, though that may have been because the audience wants so much to believe in Mahlsdorf, and sometimes the others’ words didn’t help.

Mahlsdorf, adorned in pearls and a dress throughout the performance, survived both the totalitarian and communist regimes of East Berlin, simultaneously amassing a museum-quality collection of period furniture and other antiques. As she tells it, she had many trials, triumphs, and humorous moments along the way. Wright, interviewing her in Germany on grant money, is thrilled. Then evidence comes to light which disputes parts Mahlsdorf’s telling. But sometimes the counter-evidence counters itself, and the truth seems to slip away.

In today’s world of “creative nonfiction,” the way in which personal stories are told seems to have become more fluid. “This is what happened to me” is the unwritten preface, “no matter what the facts may say.” And anytime a story is told, the teller modifies it to achieve the desired effect. Even what we remember of events is subjective; what we choose to tell, equally so. There are hard facts, and then there are those not so easy to pin down: Either one did or did not corporate with the Stasi, but how one’s friends truly felt about being revealed to the Stasi is not so easy to know. Mahlsdorf either added the belongings of Jewish families to her collection or she did not, but whether or intentions were admirable is not so easy to say.

Despite the controversy, Mahlsdorf remains a likeable figure throughout the play, though perhaps not as easily so as she presented herself. While she initially seemed demure, she was actually a bold—and, in many ways, frightful—figure. The set reflected this dichotomy. Before the lights went down, the set consisted of two walls covered in blue floral paper, a double door, a pedestal, two tables, and three chairs. As soon as Burton entered, the scene became more complicated. With the lights dimmed, the wallpaper became a transparent screen behind which Wright placed some of the action. A gramophone was carried onto the stag, and a picture dropped from the ceiling, as if it had been on the wall the entire time. An entire wall of period room displays appeared behind the walls.

There is much more to I Am My Own Wife than first meets the eye. See it for the story, for the scenery, and to consider for yourself the questions inherent to biography.

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis presents Doug Wright’s I Am My Own Wife, directed by John Going, through February 3, 2006. Tickets are $13–61. Performances are at the Loretto-Hilton Center of Performing Arts (130 Edgar Rd., Webster Groves). Show times and ticket prices are available by calling 314-968-4925 or visiting www.repstl.org.

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