Playwright: Doug Wright
At: Museum of Contemporary Art,
220 E. Chicago
Phone: (312) 397-4010; $16-$20
Runs through: March 16
In collaboration with the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago's premiere gay, lesbian, and transgendered theater group, About Face, has made a temporary home at the downtown museum and are initiating a festival of new plays. Their first outing, I Am My Own Wife, boasts a powerhouse of talent. Penned by Obie-award winning Doug Wright, who wrote Quills (about the Marquis de Sade), directed by Moises Kaufman, author of The Laramie Project and Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde, and starring—in his Chicago premiere—the enormously talented Jefferson Mays, member of Anne Bogart's SITI company.
This intimate, compelling, riveting tour de force concerns itself with the life of the person born as Lothar Berfelde, who later transformed himself into Charlotte von Mahlsdorf. For the sake of simplicity, I will refer to the central character here in the feminine gender and will refer to Berfelde as Charlotte von Mahlsdorf. Mahlsdorf was a real person, who managed to survive Nazism and Communism. In a personal nightmare, she also survived a very abusive father. Her story is one of change, courage, and ultimately, what it means to be oneself at all costs.
Mays portrays Mahlsdorf, along with a host of several other characters, with an astonishing range, pulling off several metamorphoses with consummate skill and talent. I Am My Own Wife is in a trial run here, before being moved to New York's off-Broadway Playwrights Horizons in May. Although what's on display is still being shaped, it is a work of great depth and promise. And, even though the creative team is still working out the kinks, it is a far more unified and watchable piece than several other 'finished' pieces currently running on Chicago stages.
Here, Moises Kaufman proves that he is as well suited to smaller, personal pieces as he was to the many-voiced Laramie Project, which dealt with the townspeople of Laramie, Wyoming as they struggled to make sense of the gay bashing death of Matthew Shepard.
It's a collaboration of three talented creators, but I Am My Own Wife takes us on a journey that encompasses the large issues of gender and sexuality. Charlotte von Mahlsdorf's true-life story is one of endurance, presented by a woman who is sure of herself, wryly funny, and above all, a real woman who will not be compromised.
The main reason to see this production-in-the-works is Jefferson Mays, who is simply a riveting performer who inspires sympathy, and who inhabits each character he plays so fully you won't soon forget any of them. And certainly, you'll never forget the legacy of a woman who insisted on being a woman when the times, and her own physical evidence, were against it.