Review: I Am My Own Wife (About Face Theatre)

| November 12, 2016

Scott Duff and Delia Kropp star as Doug and Charlotte in I Am My Own Wife, About Face Theatre           
      
  

I Am My Own Wife

Written by Doug Wright
at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont (map)
thru Dec 10  |  tix: $20-$40  |  more info
       
Check for half-price tickets   
     


    
  

Enthralling docudrama will fill you with heartbreak, awe and joy

  

Scott Duff, Matt Holzfeind, Delia Kropp and Ninos Baba in I Am My Own Wife, About Face

    
About Face Theatre presents
    
I Am My Own Wife

Review by Catey Sullivan

Even shrouded in uncertainties, there’s no denying that the life of East Germany’s Charlotte von Mahlsdorf was extraordinary. Scratch that. “Extraordinary”doesn’t even begin to describe it.

As playwright Doug Wright asserts in I Am My Own Wife, Mahlsdorf was someone whose very existence seems impossible. If her life were a novel, it would be panned as preposterous. No transgender woman could survive both the Third Reich and the brutal communist dictatorship that followed. But von Mahlsdorf did just that. Her entire life is an Delia Kropp, Matt Holzfeind, Ninos Baba, I Am My Own Wiife, About Face Theatreimpossible truth, a fact that leaves you dizzy with cognitive dissonance because “impossible” and “truth” don’t seem to fit together. Yet in von Mahlsdorf’s case, they do.

With I Am My Own Wife, Wright offers a deep dive into the life of von Mahlsdorf,, a woman who did far more than survive two of the most brutal dictatorships in recorded history. She thrived, creating a museum where art and history came together in the form of antiques and a bar that was a refuge and a raucous gathering place for the LGBTQ community. She became a talk show hero, giving a face and a voice to the transgender community before the word “transgender” even existed.

She lived through Nazi roundups and executions, interrogations by the dreaded Stasi, and a childhood marked by a sick and violent father intent on murdering his wife and children. She went about her business in a dress and pearls, in an era when simply being out – never mind being out as “a transvestite” – could get you shot.

Directed by Andrew Volkoff for About Face Theatre, I Am My Own Wife is a rich, enthralling docudrama that shines a klieg light on the very worst and the very best aspects of humankind. The cruelty and barbarism that surrounded von Mahlsdorf for decades were so severe as to be almost indescribable. The humanity and hope that she created within that world of hate is staggering.

When About Face presented the Chicago premiere of I Am My Own Wife in 2003, Jefferson Mays played von Mahslsdorf. He’d created the role, and was integral toward making the piece edge-of-your-seat riveting. With Delia Kropp taking on the role, I Am My Own Wife takes on a whole new urgency. Thirteen years after Mays roared through town with the story, it remains a piece of theater that will whipsaw you from gutting heartbreak to soaring hopefulness. The power this time around rests largely in Kropp, whose unique blend of talent, training and biology makes for a Charlotte von Mahlsdorf that will leave you filled with awe and joy.

Kropp has always been a formidable actor, working for over a decade in Chicago in roles ranging from Dr. Baylis in All My Sons to Alan in Equus. She took time off to transition, and began her career as a female actor earlier this year. In doing so, Kropp made history. She’s the only transwoman actor in Chicago whose career spans both ends of the gender spectrum. But while being a transwoman means that Kropp brings a powerful authenticity to I Am My Own Wife, it would be a disservice to label her as a trans actor. First and foremost, she’s an amazingly powerful performer.

Delia Kropp stars as Charlotte von Mahlsdorf in I Am My Own Wife at About Face TheatreScott Duff and Delia Kropp star as Doug and Charlotte in I Am My Own Wife, About Face Theatre

I Am My Own Wife plays like a docudrama as Wright (Scott Duff) conducts a series of interviews with von Mahlsdorf for an article in the U.S. press. Through those interviews, the audience sees von Mahlsdorf in all of her contradictory complexity.

We hear about the homicidal father who terrorized his family until a very young von Mahlsdorf bludgeons him to death. We see a 15-year-old von Mahlsdorf barely escape execution at the hands of the Nazis, only because the officer ordering the point-blank shootings can’t quite stomach killing a child. The story wends through von Mahlsdorf’s intimate friendship with a gay antiques dealer, a man imprisoned after von Mahlsdorf turns him over to the Stasi. Through interview transcripts and flashbacks, Wright also gives the audience access to von Mahlsdorf’s popular museum – and the bar beneath where a sex-positive gay culture thrived right under the noses of the secret police. Ultimately, von Mahlsdorf becomes beloved – Germany’s “tranny granny” – and a popular figure on the talk show circuit.

Just how much of von Mahlsdorf’s story is true and how much is fabrication remains a mystery to this day. Maybe she was actually an enthusiastic informant for the secret police and a traitor to her friends. Maybe her dangerous father was a fiction. Maybe her almost too-perfect lesbian auntie never existed. And maybe Charlotte von Mahlsdorf only survived at the expense of those she turned in, testified against, and spied on.  We’ll never known, and Wright eventually makes peace with that as I Am My Own Wife reaches its conclusion.

The one undeniable truth that shines throughout is this: East German was a vast killing field for those in the LGBTQ community from the end of the Weimar Era to the fall of the Berlin Wall. Charlotte von Mahlsdorf nevertheless refused to hide. She went about her daily business in a dress and pearls. In an era of extreme homophobia, she refused to be closeted. And she created a refuge for men and women who risked getting killed simply for living honestly.

Ninos Baba and Delia Kropp star in I Am My Own Wife, About Face Theatre

Kropp’s understated performance reveals a woman who refuses to succumb to bullies, even when they’re pointing a loaded gun at her head. There’s grace, beauty, vulnerability and steel in Kropp’s portrayal. In the wake of the recent election, it’s a performance that comes with an unmistakable subtext: Jackbooted strongmen might be in charge, but you do not have to crumble under their watch. Sooner or later, the wall will tumble. Sooner or later, honesty and endurance will surely win.

Volkoff has surrounded Kropp with a supporting cast that’s a treat to behold. As Doug Wright, Duff captures the excitement of a man who knows a ground-breaking story when he stumbles upon it. He also delivers the conflicts that roil within him when the veracity of some of von Mahlsdorf’s stories start to seem suspect.

Matt Holzfiend and Ninos Baba melt into a series of idiosyncratic, memorable supporting players ranging from dead-eyed brownshirted thugs to garrulous talk show hosts. There are no costume changes, no set changes and no fancy lighting effects to signal changes in time or place: It’s pure storytelling with no distractions, and everybody on stage excels at it.

The final image in I Am My Own Wife is an old photograph of a very young von Mahlsdorf grinning as he sits between two lion cubs. It’s an image that captures the fearlessness and joy that define von Mahlsdorf’s life. It’s also an image that will sear itself into your memory, so that when the predators come padding around, you can look them dead in the eye without fear.

  
Rating: ★★★½
  

I Am My Own Wife continues through December 10th at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont (map), with performances Wednesdays-Saturdays at 7:30pm, Sundays 3pm.  Tickets are $40 (students & seniors: $20), and are available by phone (773-975-8150) or online through TheaterWit.org (check for half-price tickets at Goldstar.com). More information at AboutFaceTheatre.com(Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes, includes an intermission)

Delia Kropp and Scott Duff star as Charlotte and Doug in I Am My Own Wife, About Face Theatre

Photos by Michael Brosilow 


  

artists

cast

Delia Kropp (Charlotte von Mahlsdorf), Scott Duff (Doug), Ninos Baba (Actor 1), Matt Holzfeind (Actor 2), Riley McIlveen, Riley Mondragon (understudies)

behind the scenes

Andrew Volkoff (director), Brian Prather (scenic design), Bob Kuhn (costume design), John Kelly (lighting design), Sarah Espinoza (sound design), Brock Alter (projection design), Caitlin Roper (stage manager), Vivian Knouse (props design), Christine Adaire (dialect coach), Philip Branken (asst. director), Keira Fromm, Alex Weisman (casting), Majel Cuza (production manager), Brian Browne (technical director), Neal Javenkoski (master electrician), Jessica Howe (scenic painter), Anna Micale (production assistant), Melissa Hubbert (asst. stage manager), Michael Brosilow (photography)

Delia Kropp stars as Charlotte von Mahlsdorf in I Am My Own Wife, About Face Theatre

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Category: 2016 Reviews, About Face Theatre, Catey Sullivan, Docudrama, Theater Wit

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