February 2006

I Am My Own Wife
by Doug Wright

Directed by Robin Phillips | Starring Stephen Ouimette

February 6 – March 4, 2006The Bluma Appel TheatreToronto
Humour, Pathos and Illumination
by Lesley Mitchell-Clarke
The award-winning I Am My Own Wife by Doug Wright is a triumph — a triumph of all of the disciplines that theatre embraces. The production — beautifully (albeit sparingly) staged and directed, is a one man show, with actor Stephen Ouimette assuming the identities of numerous characters, including (and primarily) a real-life East German Transvestite, Charlotta Von Mahlsdorf, who somehow managed to survive two of the most heinous and repressive regimes that the world has ever see — Nazism, and Communism. The play is drawn from a series of interviews with the real Charlotte (nee Lothar Berfelde) conducted by playwright Doug Wright during the last phase of her remarkable and eccentric life.

The cross-dressing Von Mahlsdorf was no over-the-top drag queen, but in fact, preferred the understated garb of an elderly German housewife (with no make-up and the addition of a simple strand of pearls). The effect was a bit like looking at Art Carney in drag. Stephen Ouimette as Charlotte captures entirely the character’s subtle, effeminate mannerisms — never resorting to stereotypical stage business or interpretations. His German sounds flawless (at least to this non-German speaker), the lilt and delivery are completely believable.

In 1934, Charlotte began collecting antique clocks and phonographs, and later, with a cart, she followed the Nazi soldiers who looted and destroyed Jewish homes, saving whatever she could, from classic German furniture to the minutiae of a vanishing world. In fact, she eventually received a united Germany’s “Federal Service Cross” for her restoration efforts and became a cult figure of Berlin society, not unlike Quentin Crisp.

In her later life, she ran a museum of her own collection, this is where she died of a heart attack in 2002. It is in this home/museum that the action of the play takes place. Amazingly, in the basement of Charlotte’s actual museum, she had somehow managed to preserve every glass and table of the last gay cabaret of the Weimer Republic, the Mulack-Ritz.

The sparse set of I Am My Own Wife is a canvas for various creative lighting effects that transform the space. Ouimette shifts seamlessly between the various characters in Charlotte’s story, his immersion in each identity re-enforcing the suspension of disbelief and weaving an incredible and mysterious yarn. As a teenage boy, Charlotte claims to have murdered her abusive and alcoholic father, and subsequently served a sentence in a youth prison… but oddly, there is little or no evidence supporting this. She was also suspected of collaborating with the “Stasi” (the East German secret police) a subject still under considerable debate.

Stephen Ouimette’s performance was so mesmerizing, that I longed to be physically closer to the actor, to perhaps get a glimpse of his invisible and compelling process. This is a show not to be missed.

Stephen Ouimette
We welcome your comments and feedback
Lesley Mitchell-Clarke
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