Opening Nights: I Am My Own Wife

Contradictions and shadowy truths in Nick Garrison's flawless performance.

The phrase "a clear choice" becomes a public mantra every election cycle, because politicians understand that America likes its alternatives writ large—faithful versus godless, blue versus red, or the one-percenters pitted against us wage slaves.

That's the one element missing from I Am My Own Wife, and that is its masterstroke. The transvestite at the show's nucleus—who somehow survived both Hitler's Third Reich and the postwar purges of East Germany—makes an imperfect icon, and this finely etched character won playwright Doug Wright a slew of awards in 2004 (including the first Pulitzer accorded a one-man show). His muse is a study in contradictions, a real person born as Lothar Berfelde in 1928 and reborn as Charlotte von Mahlsdorf. (She died 10 years ago.)

Wright's text calls for only one actor, but one who can grapple with nearly 40 roles of varying nationalities, genders, and dialects. In a real way, I Am My Own Wife is a detective story, as both audience and playwright—Wright is also a character, since he interviewed Charlotte to research the play—are seeking to uncover who she might really be and how much she says is actually true. Wright readily admits that Charlotte confounded him in their interviews, where he slowly won her confidence, and we experience each discovery much the way he did.

Beyond dispute is that Charlotte (played with delicate precision by Nick Garrison) began cross-dressing under the Nazis, continued under the Commies, and never surrendered her identity. But Charlotte did pay a price for her not-so-rugged individualism—and so apparently did the close friends whom she betrayed to the Stasi to survive (recall the 2006 movie The Lives of Others). She's admirable and yet she's not. A passionate collector of antiques, Charlotte could well be one of the damaged curios she speaks of with such reverence—an artifact of blurred provenance and much moral ambiguity. Wright allows every one of her tics to annoy and fascinate us, as they did him, and challenges us to make up our own minds about her.

Garrison—who has played both the emcee in Cabaret and the Hedwig of Angry Inch fame—is ideally suited to the tasks before him. His men are manly, his women range from frail and fragile to butch, and his gay guys are cerebral and sensitive. Director Jerry Manning deftly guides his star through Jennifer Zeyl's minimalist set, but leaves it to the actor to provide a constellation of emotions and gestures and a truly elastic set of vocal cords. As flawed as Charlotte may be, Garrison's performance is flawless and triumphant.

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