By Jim Rutter
For THE INQUIRER
Do you like your biographies historically accurate or delivered with artistic license? Your preferences—and judgment—matter much in how you’ll respond to Doug Wright’s I Am My Own Wife, now receiving a sharply performed, thought-provoking production at Theatre Horizon.
Wright’s one-person play centers around interviews he conducted from 1992-1993 with Charlotte von Mahlsdorf (Charlie DelMarcelle), an East German transvestite and antiquarian who ran the Gründerzeit Museum, and provided a haven for gays and lesbians during the repressive East German regime. In DelMarcelle’s performance, Charlotte easily engages and at first captivates, convincing Wright in her interviews that she is nothing less than “the most singular eccentric individual the cold war ever birthed”.
But like the antiques she preserves, her stories crack and embellishments lose luster, and Wright discovers that this unlikely survivor of both the Nazis and the German Democratic Republic may have endured and amassed her museum’s collection by purloining items from deported Jews and from dissidents arrested by the East German secret police.
DelMarcelle’s complex performance amplifies these dichotomies, deepening the division between Wright’s quest for truth and Charlotte’s desire to preserve her own myth. He portrays over 30 roles, these delineated without costume but only by DelMarcelle’s remarkable changes of gait and posture, and the subtle, skilful shifts in tone of David Todaro’s lighting that match the changes in DelMarcelle’s tenor.
Wright’s play invites us to judge her—an action his character mostly refuses to perform. As a gay man who grew up in the Bible Belt, Wright needed her story of survival to be true. Here too, DelMarcelle embraces and adds to the complexity, never baiting us to sympathize with either Wright or Charlotte’s emotional attachment to either version of her story. As written, the script is as much about Wright as it is about Charlotte; at Theatre Horizon, we’re equal participants, asked to evaluate each revelation in the short pauses of Kathryn MacMillan’s direction.
So which do you prefer? Hard truth or comforting fiction? In Charlotte’s story, “art survives.”
I Am My Own Wife. Presented through November 24 at Theatre Horizon, 401 DeKalb Street, Norristown. Tickets: $22 to $35. Information: 610-283-2230 or theatrehorizon.org