Near the end of "I Am My Own Wife," the character Charlotte von Mahlsdorf says she never refinishes any of the vintage furniture in her German museum. To repair damaged veneers or broken spindles, Charlotte reminds her audience, would erase the history of a piece.
It is clear in Doug Wright's play that this statement is a device that refers to Charlotte herself. Wright became fascinated with this transvestite who survived Nazism and Communism, all the while collecting antiques from the Gründerzeit era (1871-1918). When less-flattering aspects of Charlotte's life came to light (she was a secret-police informant), Wright faced the decision of whether to write a play that lacquered over these faults or presented a flawed human being. He, of course, chose to present Charlotte, warts and all, in this one-man show performed by Bradley Greenwald at the Jungle Theater in Minneapolis.
Greenwald, who received Ivey recognition for his portrayal in the Jungle's 2006 production of "I am My Own Wife," nimbly flips among two dozen characters, reserving his coy smile and Teutonic accent for the central role of Charlotte. She herself is something of a museum, born Lothar Berfelde in Berlin. A shy boy, he killed his brutal Nazi father near the end of World War II, escaped from a detention center when it was bombed by Russians and began to dress exclusively as a woman.
Charlotte scavenged artifacts and ran a small museum in a country manor at Mahlsdorf and somehow survived Nazism and East German Communism. However, after the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, secret police files revealed that perhaps Charlotte was not quite a simple and benign curator of clocks, phonographs, divans and tavern bars. She likely spied on friends and helped put a dear friend behind bars.
Director Joel Sass creates striking tableaux on his jewel-box set, flanked by giant file cabinets shaped as smokestacks (are those crematoria from the death camps?). Sass beautifully uses Barry Browning's lights and sound from Sean Healey and C. Andrew Mayer to ease Greenwald's many shifts in character and mood. It is lovely stage magic.
Wright won the Pulitzer and Tony awards with this play because he chose to make "I Am My Own Wife" more than a portrait of an eccentric. By making himself the other main character, Wright engages in the tug and pull of conscience once he realizes the hero he fell in love with had clay feet. Should he sand off the rough edges and return Charlotte to the pedestal, or give us something more valuable -- the guile and complexity of humanity?
Greenwald makes "I Am My Own Wife" a tour de force with his appreciation for Charlotte's tics and the deep wounds she endures. But he and Sass really get that there are greater stakes.