Theater Review: 'I Am My Own Wife,' Lost Nation Theater | Theater | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Theater Review: 'I Am My Own Wife,' Lost Nation Theater


Published April 10, 2024 at 10:00 a.m.

Stoph Scheer in I Am My Own Wife - COURTESY OF JOHN SNELL
  • Courtesy Of John Snell
  • Stoph Scheer in I Am My Own Wife

Now at Lost Nation Theater, the one-person show I Am My Own Wife presents the life of Charlotte von Mahlsdorf (1928-2002), a Berliner who turned her home into a museum of cultural artifacts and her life into a beacon. She opens the play speaking directly to the audience, sure of her taste, herself and our interest. That exemplary certainty also gave her the courage to dress as a woman under the repressive Nazi and East German Communist regimes.

Her power is knowing who she is. Born Lothar Berfelde, at 15 she became Charlotte and began wearing women's clothes, at the height of World War II. She proudly identifies herself with the term of her times, a transvestite, but she'd be described as transgender today.

In a magnificent performance, Stoph Scheer, herself a trans woman, embodies Charlotte with an elegant tone and soft German accent, the first of many voices we'll hear. She also plays 35 other people in Charlotte's life.

"For 50 years, I have been turning this crank," Charlotte says as she starts an antique phonograph, beginning a stream of recollections that playwright Doug Wright fashions into tiny scenes, some of them brief exchanges between two characters and others little snips of narrative summary. It's a crisp way of turning a full lifetime into a cascade of experiences. It's also an astounding challenge for Scheer, who makes all the characters distinct, using vocal and physical characteristics to pinpoint them.

Some transitions happen with the speed of a raised of eyebrow. Others utilize Scheer's extraordinary vocal gamut and command of accents. All the characters are rooted in defined physicality as well. The loud guy with an unapologetic American accent seems large because of the way he leans with his shoulders stiffened. Charlotte's aunt has the strong, straight posture of a horsewoman. Scheer's virtuoso vocal work deserves appreciation, but she is using it to make characters, not to bowl us over. Scheer's craft gives us a play rich with people.

Most one-person shows carry the limitation that little can happen in front of our eyes when it's all recollection, dramatically told. But Wright's play is built from scenes, and Charlotte lives bits of her life before us. She engages with people, not memories. The play premiered off-Broadway and won the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the Tony Award for Best Play.

When Charlotte reenacts what it first felt like to wear the clothes she belonged in, joy and certainty overcome her. The transformation is personal and vivid, which puts it a world away from the generalized rhetoric, however well intentioned, about trans rights. What we see onstage is an individual experiencing the human right to be whole.

Director Joanne Greenberg lets the comedy rise just high enough and the dark events simmer just low enough. Greenberg's attention to stage movement and pace gives Scheer's expressive performance a foundation.

I Am My Own Wife is not a political statement but a human one, and the person we meet is both fascinating and uplifting. But it's also fair to say we learn more of her luck than her losses. We get only one scene of her in danger of Nazi scrutiny. It's potent and well played, but the script never builds on the scars from this or other harrowing events.

In a loose, bold structure, the playwright himself appears in interviews with 65-year-old Charlotte to develop the script. Wright's presence adds some wonderful humor but also allows him to dodge the messy matter of Charlotte's possible collaboration with the German secret police. The playwright puts his own disappointment in Charlotte's betrayal into the play, as if that's apology enough for skirting serious investigation of her role and its ramifications.

The character has become too fascinating and too lovable by that point in the story for the audience to want much of a reckoning. But no one should mistake this play for a deep look into Charlotte's inner life.

Instead, Charlotte is an indomitable wonder, preserving artifacts of the Gründerzeit (the Gay Nineties) and living life as she pleases. Her strength to be who she is, inside and out, is her life's work as much as the museum is. Scheer gives her that very German combination of a gimlet eye and a life-affirming smile.

Wright is stuck with an awkward ending because real people rarely have stories that conclude as neatly and powerfully as fictional characters do. He zooms out to close the play, and it's a fine way to stake out an ending, but it leaves the actor a bit of a bystander for the conclusion. After Scheer supplied all the fuel that burned for the past two hours, shrinking Charlotte to archival photos moves the attention away from a stunning performance.

Mark Evancho's set design evokes an idiosyncratic museum assembled with love. The stage is dotted with furniture artfully arranged to create places for events in Charlotte's life to unfold. The gramophones and antiques are lit with period lamps, establishing the warmth with which they're treasured.

Effective lighting design by Julia Grace Kelley and musically rich sound design by Eric Love create Charlotte's world. Costume designer Cora Fauser developed a black dress that suits the vast range of movement needed for Charlotte and all the other characters. In a single dress, Scheer can appear delicate and feminine, manspread to command a chair, or dance like a TV host.

Charlotte's pride becomes the armor that protects her. The playwright admits Charlotte may have embellished her tales. Indeed, I Am My Own Wife is the story of a person who had to invent herself. She created a museum to collect artifacts, preserving them from the casual destruction of falling out of fashion. That zeal infuses her life as an outlier, and Scheer converts our curiosity about her into a connection.

I Am My Own Wife, by Doug Wright, directed by Joanne Greenberg, produced by Lost Nation Theater. Through April 21: Thursdays through Saturdays, 7:30 p.m.; and Sundays, 2 p.m., at Lost Nation Theater, Montpelier City Hall. $10-36.

The original print version of this article was headlined "A Life's Work | Theater review: I Am My Own Wife, Lost Nation Theater"

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