Saturday, July 29, 2006

I Am My Own Wife (The SOB Review) - The Jungle Theater, Minneapolis, MN

I Am My Own Wife (The SOB Review) - The Jungle Theater, Minneapo- lis, MN

**1/2 (out of ****)

I'm not sure whether I simply waited too long to see I Am My Own Wife or if it was overhyped from the beginning, but I found Doug Wright's Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning play to be more than a just little disappointing and only somewhat captivating when I saw it last night. The one-man show centers on the story of Lothar Befelde, a German transvestite who assumed the identity of Charlotte Von Mahlsdorf and lived through the Nazi and Communist eras of Germany.

While Minnesota-based actor Bradley Greenwald certainly gave Befelde-cum-Von Mahldorf his all despite a few flubbed lines, he seemed a bit miscast for the pivotal role. From the moment he first appears -- complete with his discernible five o'clock shadow, it becomes difficult to imagine the real Von Mahlsdorf ever passing herself to Nazi and Communist authorities as anyone more than a man in a dress. Greenwald was more well-suited for many of the play's other 34 characters including Wright himself, although his posture seemed to incorrectly convey the wrong role more than once while alternating between characters.

As for the implied danger, the audience learns early on that Nazi authorities asked the teenage Befelde whether he was a boy or a girl. Befelde admitted to being a boy and was subsequently surprised that his life was spared. Not exactly the gripping anecdote I had come to expect -- I had expected a depiction of how one transvestite miraculously eluded Nazi (and later Communist) persecution for being gay by convincingly assuming the identity of a woman. But according to Wright, the only actual danger ever faced by this real-life transvestite was from Befelde's father late in World War II and a latter-day neo-Nazi after the Berlin Wall had come down (surprisingly, our hero/heroine was the one who inflicted the harm in response to both threats).

Most intriguing is that more than half of the play delves deeply into Von Mahlsdorf's unholy alliance with the East German Stasi. But distracting from the principal storyline is Wright's self-absorbed tangent in which he desperately wanted to believe that Von Mahlsdorf was something she was not. Unfortunately, by weaving himself into the play, he threatens the very fabric of the story he already has. We don't get a well-rounded characterization of Befelde/Von Mahlsdorf or gain a deep appreciation for who this individual really was or what motivated her actions during Communist rule. Instead, we're left wondering what the fuss is all about since the Nazis and Communists were depicted more as the "live and let live" types than the brutal regimes they truly were. While marginally gripping, we never get a true story of survival.

Eschewing a full-blown national tour, the original Broadway production played only a handful of U.S. venues before taking a West End detour, which failed to ignite the level of interest and critical acclaim it enjoyed stateside. While Tony-winning Best Actor in a Play Jefferson Mays is now touring with the play in Melbourne, Australia, American audiences are instead seeing local regional productions.

While the production values of this Minneapolis version helmed by Joel Sass were outstanding -- including his exceptional set design (that included a mansion-turned-armoire in the middle of oversized Stasi filing cabinets) and perfect sound design by C. Andrew Mayer and Sean Healey (that effectively depicted everything from the Edison player to bombardments during World War II) -- I couldn't help but wonder whether I would have been more impressed with the actual story had I seen it with Jefferson Mays. Unless he reprises his role in the United States, I guess I'll never know.

This is Steve On Broadway (SOB).

Click here for tickets. The Jungle Theater production was originally set to close on July 30, but has been extended through August 6.

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