Andrew Long is so extraordinary in the one-(wo)man show “I Am My Own Wife”, that his own performance almost distracts from the intriguing play at the Signature Theatre in Arlington, VA.
Long convincingly becomes all of the 30-odd, most quite odd, roles in the Pulitzer- and Tony®-winning play. He switches among them seamlessly, instantaneously, and constantly.
So much so, that his acting feat is at times more compelling than the play itself. Marveling at marvelous acting can be distracting.
The main character is the real life German transvestite Charlotte von Mahlsdorf. née Lothar Berfelde, a German transvestite who managed to survive Nazi rule, neo-Nazis, the repressive East German Communist regime, and so much more.
She calls herself a “tranny granny” and “a museum”.
Charlotte is “The most singular, eccentric individual the Cold War ever birthed,” as playwright Doug Wright describes her. “Her life is like some Cold War thriller written by Armistead Maupin” (“Tales of the City”).
Long absolutely inhabits the quietly heroic, stoic, endearing, enduring Charlotte. S/he remains understated, even when describing the terror of being a transvestite with long blonde hair, “We were wild game, like the Jews.”
Without missing a beat or an accent, Long also becomes: playwright Wright, a Bible-Belt-born gay who travels to Germany to interview, research, and write about her; Charlotte’s violently sadistic Nazi father; cross-dressing aunt (“Nature has played a cruel joke on us”); SS officers; neo-Nazis; Stasi East German secret police; even a TV host who interviews her, then plays a David Hassellhoff song; and many more.
The play covers Charlotte’s fascinating three-quarter-century-life in rapid-fire speed – except for the opening of the play and the beginning of its second act. The show begins with the playwright listening to a loooong taped segment of his first interview with Charlotte. The audience has no context for it, nor for the new character who opens the second act.
The play does, however, smoothly interweave doubt about the veracity of von Mahlsdorf’s claims (no spoilers here.)
True or false isn’t the question. Charlotte’s own truth is what’s important.
It’s like that moment in Jean Giradoux’s “The Madwoman of Chaillot when Constance asks the Countess whether her pearls are false or real. The Countess replies, “Everyone knows that when you wear pearls, little by little, they become real.” Constance responds, “And isn’t it the same with memories?”
In “Wife”, pearl-wearing, black dress-clad Long shows yet another facet of his wide-ranging, deep talent. He won the Helen Hayes Award, Washington’s version of the Tonys, for playing a child murderer in “Frozen”, and has received acclaim also for his Shakespearean roles.
Alan Paul — at age 25 — makes an excellent stage directing debut with “Wife”. The DC native is Resident Assistant Director at DC’s Shakespeare Theatre Company.
In “Wife”, Wright tells Charlotte that their first interview “was one of the most memorable mornings of my life.” Seeing this production will be one of the most memorable evenings of your theater-going life.
True or false? See for yourself.
For more info and to buy tickets: Signature Theatre, www.signature-theatre.org, 4200 Campbell Avenue, Arlington, VA, 703-820-9771. To watch the Signature winning the 2009 Tony for Outstanding Regional Theater, click here.