I Am My Own Wife Review - Trans History Resonates Across Time

 

In the wake of recent election results, many LGTBQIA folks are filled with anxiety in the face of a presidency that threatens to take away many of the rights that they have fought hard to earn. It is difficult, in the face of so much hatred and fear, to have hope, or to know what the future might look like, or to know what action to take.

 

(pictured) Delia Kropp in About Face Theatre’s production of I AM MY OWN WIFE, by Doug Wright, directed by Artistic Director Andrew Volkoff

 

About Face Theatre offers ideas and maybe even answers to these overwhelming and difficult questions with its revolutionary revival of I Am My Own Wife, a piece developed by acclaimed playwright Doug Wright at AFT thirteen years ago. Originally conceived as a one-man play, the story of the remarkable Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, a transgender woman who survived Nazi Germany and the communist regime, is revitalized in a new interpretation by artistic director Andrew Volkoff. Featuring transgender actress Delia Kropp in the leading role, with the remaining characters distributed among an ensemble of men, this new production resonates with the current political climate in complex and unexpected ways.

 

(left to right) Ninos Baba and Delia Kropp in About Face Theatre’s production of I AM MY OWN WIFE, by Doug Wright, directed by Artistic Director Andrew Volkoff

 

Charlotte von Mahlsdorf was a real woman who lived an extraordinary life. In the face of two of the most oppressive regimes in Western history, she hid in plain sight and lived an authentic life that not only allowed for her survival under seemingly impossible circumstances, but sheltered other queer and genderqueer people from the storm that was all around them. Charlotte’s life is a series of exceptional events: a rare connection to an aunt who identified with the masculine, the killing of an abusive father in self-defense, the recreation of a Berlin gay bar in her basement, which served as a hidden refuge for queer folk around the city.

 

(left to right) Delia Kropp and Scott Duff in About Face Theatre’s production of I AM MY OWN WIFE, by Doug Wright, directed by Artistic Director Andrew Volkoff

 

Playwright Doug Wright is himself a character in the story; the script shows how his relationship with Charlotte develops over time, as well the inner turmoil he feels when Charlotte’s stories and reputation are called into question by conflicting evidence from stasi records. Just as Charlotte curates history through her antique museum, Wright must curate her history, too, and faces difficult questions about how to preserve the plurality of history and the truth of a complex and contradictory human life.

 

(front) Delia Kropp with (back l to r) Matt Holzfeind and Ninos Baba in About Face Theatre’s production of I AM MY OWN WIFE, by Doug Wright, directed by Artistic Director Andrew Volkoff

 

The choice to bring a transgender actor to the role of Charlotte for the first time in the play’s history, and to divide the remaining roles among a trio of male actors, makes a powerful and important statement. By separating Charlotte from the rest of the characters and by eliminating the single actor’s transitions between every person in the play, not only is Charlotte more clearly centered as the unique and fascinating subject of the play’s action, but the reality of her gender identity is able to exist in an honest way. The line between a trans woman and a man in a dress is distinct and unblurred by the protagonist’s being embodied in a male actor. In a world in which transgender lives, and especially those of trans women, are so constantly at risk, to put a trans woman onstage to tell a trans woman’s story carries enormous weight.

 

(left to right) Matt Holzfeind, Scott Duff and Delia Kropp in About Face Theatre’s production of I AM MY OWN WIFE, by Doug Wright, directed by Artistic Director Andrew Volkoff

 

This is not even to mention the extraordinary talent of lead actor Delia Kropp, whose performance captures Charlotte’s personality in an utterly truthful, nuanced way. From her unbridled enthusiasm for her beloved furniture, to her energetic and emotional recreation of the past, to her refusal to speak of the darkest and most clouded parts of her history, Kropp allows Charlotte humanity and mystery all at once, and her performance is utterly gripping. The ensemble of men (Scott Duff, Ninos Baba, and Matt Holzfeind) is impressive as well, with Baba and Holzfeind moving easily through a complex range of characters, and Duff capturing the passion and conflicting emotions of playwright Doug Wright with intelligence and energy.

 

(left to right) Scott Duff, Matt Holzfeind, Delia Kropp and Ninos Baba in About Face Theatre’s production of I AM MY OWN WIFE, by Doug Wright, directed by Artistic Director Andrew Volkoff

 

The design work makes clever use of miniature furniture to represent Charlotte’s vast collection in a finite amount of space. Lighting design by John Kelly contributes greatly to the story’s many shifts in both location and mood, and costume design by Bob Kuhn makes remarkable use of Charlotte’s iconic pearl necklace. Dialect coach Christine Adaire must also be credited for the realism of the German and other dialects used throughout the show.

 

(pictured) Delia Kropp in About Face Theatre’s production of I AM MY OWN WIFE, by Doug Wright, directed by Artistic Director Andrew Volkoff. All photos by Michael Brosilow

 

Now more than ever, the world needs the story of Charlotte von Mahlsdorf. In one of the most impactful moments of the story, Wright tells a friend that in spite of all the evidence casting shadows on Charlotte’s character, he needs to believe her story. He needs to believe that a heroic transgender woman not only survived but thrived during two of the most difficult periods of German history. I have to admit that I needed it too, that I needed to believe that other queer folk had survived difficulty before, that a life like Charlotte’s is not an impossible one, that there is hope to be found in history as we fight our present-day struggle.

 

I Am My Own Wife is a vital performance for people of any gender identity or sexual orientation, especially now. About Face Theatre, Andrew Volkoff, and Delia Kropp have brought a desperately needed story to the stage, and its implications are far-reaching and consequential.

 

Ticket Information

Location: Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave., Chicago

Regular run:  Friday, November 11 – Saturday, December 10, 2016

Curtain Times: Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 pm; Sundays at 3 pm.

Please note: there will not be performance on Wednesday, November 23 or Thursday, November 24 (Thanksgiving Day); there will be added performances on Saturday, November 26 at 3 pm, Sunday, November 27 at 7:30 pm and Saturday, December 10 at 3 pm.

Tickets: $40 adults, $20 students and seniors. Discounts available for groups of 10 or more. Tickets are currently available at the About Face website, by calling (773) 975-8150 or in person at Theater Wit Box Office.

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