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I Am My Own Wife

Photo by Rupert Reid

Oriel Group in association with Red Line productions present, I AM MY OWN WIFE, by Doug Wright, at the Old Fitzroy Theatre, Cathedral St, Wooloomooloo, 17 Nov – 5 Dec.

I AM MY OWN WIFE by American Doug Wright won the Pulitzer prize in 2004. It concerns the writing of this play about a famous German Transvestite, Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, who lived in Berlin through the Nazi and Communist regimes, by Doug Wright. It was Directed, originally, by Moises Kaufman for his Tectonic Theatre Project, which has developed other biographical material as Drama, such as: GROSS INDECENCY: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde (1997) and famously THE LARAMIE PROJECT (2000). The New York productions of I AM MY OWN WIFE, off-Broadway and on-Broadway, starred Jefferson Mays, for which he won a Tony Award. Mr Mays played in a production of the play at the Sydney Opera House in 2006. Apparently, it was this performance that inspired Ben Gerrard, as a young acting student, to put it onto his list of plays to do.

The play is a solo work. Over the course of the play (90 minutes, with an interval), Mr Gerrard will play a multitude of characters, principally, Charlotte von Mahlsdorf and the author Doug Wright, during their interviews for the preparation of the script. The play develops into a moral conundrum for the author as he has a version of the facts of Charlotte von Mahlsdorf’s life from herself on tape, but is confronted with some other publicly recorded facts that seem to, crucially, contradict them.

The role requires much virtuosity of the actor.  Mr Gerrard is extraordinarily accurate with all of its transformations, vocally and physically, and is positively fearless as he talks directly to the audience, often, as much as if he is possessed by the fearless nature of the central character of the work – the fearlessness a common identifying trait of both?  The technical control of the actor is astonishing but I felt sometimes at the expense of permitting the audience to be confronted, to be able to empathise or not, with the character and the story-dilemma. The experience, for me, resulted in admiration, but I was not touched or moved. It had a cool expertise and a kind of ‘missionary’ zeal about its intentions, tone, and in the contrast to a recent similar moral dilemma presented at the Old Fitz, earlier in the year, with Gail Louw’s play, BLONDE POISON, and the ambiguous motives of Stella Goldschag in repressive times, oddly, much less disconcerting. Mr Gerrard did not find the moments to ‘reveal’ the inner contradictions of his character to allow us sufficient opportunity to endow our feelings, our judgements, our vulnerabilities, for Charlotte or her situations.

The production is immaculate. The Set Design by Caroline Commo is beautiful in its forensic clarity of detail and ‘tricks’ – the clever 3D wooden jig-saw pieces, substituting for a variety of ‘properties’ in the table – the Lighting by Hugh Hamilton atmospheric, with a Sound Design by Nate Edmondson of restrained aptness. Director, Shaun Rennie, has created a very tight and lucid production lacking, perhaps, an emotional centre to the conflicts , in its brisk efficiency.

Mr Wright’s play, in this production, appears to be just a little too formulaic in its structures and idiosyncrasies of style, and is a very familiar technique, developed by Moises Kaufman (the original Director), in his other work, and does not really stand up as a great Pulitzer Prize winner alongside many other winners of this coveted award. Mr Wright has written, co-incidently, another play been presented in Sydney at the moment: GREY GARDENS, a musical presented by Squabbalogic, at the Seymour Centre.

I AM MY OWN WIFE at the Old Fitz is a production of theatrical bravura. Go, and judge for yourself. Who is Charlotte von Mahlsdorf? and even more intriguingly, Who and What is Mr Wright, in the travails of his writing?