I Am My Own Wife

    Wade McCollum is deceptively coy in his first stage entrance. Stepping out between the swinging doors, he immediately registers the audience with intimidated joy and then disappears backstage, only to return with an old phonograph. The ensuing lesson in phonographic history is told in a studied broken Berlin German/English soliloquy. What’s deceptive is McCollum’s absorption in this character of a 75-year-old transvestite museum-keeper, for during the hour and 45 minute course of I Am My Own Wife he will play all of the 35 characters, most of them with equal intensity. The piece looks back to the Third Reich and the Soviet control of the G.D.R. from the present-day perspective, spanning the recent tumultuous history of eastern Berlin.

    The somewhat true story of Charlotte von Mahlsdorf is gradually told to playwright Doug Wright throughout the performance. The play itself is a record of its own creation, how Wright came across the topic (through a journalist friend), raised money and traveled to and from Berlin to interview Charlotte, and eventually became disillusioned with his heroine. In total, Wright managed to collect over 500 pages of interviews with Charlotte – not to mention first-hand experience in her beloved Gr퀨͌_nderzeit Museum. Watching the play gives the impression that it was the first-hand encounter, even more than the interviews, that resulted in Wright’s devotion to Charlotte.

    McCollum switches between characters in a definite and energetic manner. Each persona has a distinctive voice and posture, from the introduction of Charlotte through the Soviet Stasi agents in the late second act. It’s this differentiation that is key to the success of the play – with one man in a black skirt and 35 roles, it would be easy for McCollum to muddle the characters together. Instead, each role has a depth and practice behind it that speaks of hours of rehearsal time.

    As the inaugural production for the Studio at Portland Center Stage, the choice of I Am My Own Wife is somewhat surprising, especially given the run of West Side Story upstairs on the main stage. It is perhaps the company’s declaration of intent for the smaller second stage to host edgier, newer works. The space itself is comfortable, 200 seats in a black-box setup that could easily be reconfigured for different seating arrangements. The only catch is the two flights of stairs down that the audience must walk; $35 million is being invested in the rebuilding of the Armory and the audience is still stuck on one flight of stairs.

    The first act of I Am My Own Wife portrays an endearing picture of Charlotte as the savior of the past during the Nazi and Soviet regimes. Quietly hiding the furniture treasures of the late 19th century in her Gr퀨͌_nderzeit Museum during the war and providing a place for other persecuted homosexuals to meet during the Soviet era, Charlotte quickly becomes a heroine. Her firm commitment to women’s clothes and affectations cement her iron will in the face of disapproval and persecution. Her encyclopedic knowledge of antiques and willingness to share her museum with the public create an aura of eccentricity. During the 15-minute intermission one wonders how a little Stasi questioning could ever change these perceptions.

    Production-wise, I Am My Own Wife is very professional. The lighting is superb. Considering the static set throughout the play, the lighting and sound are crucial to continued interest in the set. Both are successful at transforming the bare stage from basement to checkpoint to sitting room. Unfortunately, the set itself is reminiscent of a high school production. Built to be flexible, the background bar seems fake (which it is, but still-), the lamps and covered flat-screens contrived. The swinging doors through which Charlotte first enters appear to have been borrowed from the production of Oklahoma! rather than World War II-era Berlin.

    Wright has won a Pulitzer Prize for the script of I Am My Own Wife, and it is understandable. The play eschews its opportunity for a feel-good happy ending and deals with difficult contemporary issues, simultaneously portraying the author (Wright) and his inner struggle with Charlotte’s duplicity, and the public reaction to her Stasi connection. It is oddly reassuring that Soviet ties are the crisis, rather than Charlotte’s transvestitism. McCollum’s effort and dedication are obvious from the first to last moment, and even when his enthusiasm and focus falter at the end of Act One, the script itself is powerful enough to compensate and maintain audience interest. I Am My Own Wife raises interesting questions during a captivating performance and promises a new level of professional small theater in Portland.