Spy lives

Brett Christopher’s vision of I Am My Own Wife breaks through

Theatre Kingston’s Brett Christopher performs the Pulitzer Prize-winning one-man show at The Baby Grand Theatre.
Theatre Kingston’s Brett Christopher performs the Pulitzer Prize-winning one-man show at The Baby Grand Theatre.
Credit: 
Supplied Photo by Tim Fort
Sleek lighting and set design maintain a professional tone for I Am My Own Wife.
Sleek lighting and set design maintain a professional tone for I Am My Own Wife.
Credit: 
Supplied Photo by Tim Fort

Cold War spy novels are a guilty pleasure of mine.

On a bleak winter’s day nothing suns the soul quite like an afternoon spent in bed with a mug of scalding tea and a so-old-it-smells-like-ammonia copy of my favourite Len Deighton book. No doubt, my attraction to the genre stems from a subconscious desire to live in an era when an individual’s morality might shift between good and evil but where the notion of good versus evil is an incontrovertible truth. Doug Wright’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, I Am My Own Wife, made possible only because the Cold War ended, offers its viewers no such comfortable certainty.

Currently playing at The Baby Grand, Theatre Kingston’s second installment of the season is about the true-life story of Charlotte von Mahlsdorf. Born under the name of Loather Berfelde, Charlotte von Mahlsdorf is a transvestite turned antique collector who manages to live her life dressed as a woman in East Berlin under both the Nazi and Communist regimes. Discovered by Western media after the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, Charlotte was eventually awarded Germany’s Bundesverdienstkreuz (Order of Merit), only to have her character called into question after her Stasi files were made public and it became known that she had been acting as a spy and informant for them during the 1970’s.

Based on actual conversations Doug Wright had with Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, the play is more about his own journey of self-discovery than it is about Charlotte’s. A character in the play himself, Wright grew up gay in the American Bible-belt and was looking for a hero when a friend in the American military wrote home from Germany to tell him about von Mahlsdorf. His interest in telling her story quickly turned into an obsession (he sold his car to finance one of his many trips to Germany), one of which left him feeling especially confused once certain aspects of Charlotte’s less than illustrious past were revealed. What do you do once you discover that the black-and-white world you thought you knew actually contains shades of grey?

Theatre Kingston’s General Manager Brett Christopher plays Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, Doug Wright, and, well, every other character in this character-rich tour-de-force of a one-man show. A seasoned actor, Christopher originally performed in this production two years ago at the Segal Theatre in Montreal. He certainly demonstrates his pedigree in this particular production of I Am My Own Wife. Costumed in a black dress throughout the play that almost resembles the garments of a nun, Christopher switches from character to character with such apparent ease one begins to wonder if he is somehow hooked up to The Clapper.

Although his accent is inconsistent—at times he sounds more like my Dutch grandmother than my German housemate—Brett Christopher manages to find and reveal the heart of every character he plays. His reserved portrayal of the steely Charlotte is particularly mesmerizing.

The same cannot be said, however, of Brendan Healey’s direction, which leaves much to be desired. Under his direction the play, although generally well-polished, runs like a badly timed wine-tasting: no sooner are we presented with a new character than are we asked to gargle, spit and move on to the next one. As a result, I Am My Own Wife never has the emotional impact on its audience that it could have in the hands of a more capable director.

Richard Feren’s sound design, Tim Fort’s lighting design and James Lavoie’s set design, on the other hand, work in harmony to create a professional-looking and sounding mise-en-scène, far removed from the trappings of fringe-festival rattiness that it could easily have had. Lavoie’s was less impressive, though, after a googling of past performances of I Am My Own Wife and discovered that the large double-doors, plank floorboards and paisley wallpaper that dominated the playing space were features that have been lifted directly from the original Broadway production. Details like this always make me wonder how much of what I have just witnessed is art and how much of it is really just a clever forgery.

But forgery or not, Theatre Kingston’s I Am My Own Wife is still worth viewing—Wright’s intriguing text is reason enough. Charlotte von Mahlsdorf is not an easy character to comprehend and her contradictions are something you carry and puzzle with for hours after seeing the show.

I Am My Own Wife runs at The Baby Grand Theatre until February 14. Tickets are available through The Grand Theatre Box Office.

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