C.J. Lewis gives a striking performance in “I Am My own Wife”
by Minta Carlson
I Am My Own Wife” follows the life of Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, a transvestite woman and antiquarian who survived both the Nazi and Communist regimes in Berlin. It’s a striking story, in part because it is true — playwright Doug Wright based the script on von Mahlsdorf’s autobiography and his own conversations with her.
But the New Hampshire Theatre Project’s production of “I Am My Own Wife” is also striking thanks to actor C.J. Lewis. In a one-man play that’s complex and, often, very dark, Lewis shines. He deftly juggles more than 15 characters, guiding them, and the audience, on a journey that, despite its emotional weight, is still light enough to fully swallow.
From the moment Lewis takes the stage, dressed in a simple black frock, he is von Mahlsdorf. He embodies this gentle character’s every careful movement -— reminiscent of a person who knows the limits age has put on her body — and replicates her melodic German-accented voice. The audience is introduced to her true love: an antique Victrola phonograph and the music composed before the rise of the Nazis and World War II.
There are some dark, harrowing moments. You might expect to feel the shudder and explosion of an Allied bombing campaign, or dread the violence of the East German secret police. However, Lewis’ von Mahlsdorf is full of joy and a genuine lightness and brings humor to a nearly impossible subject. The audience is allowed to laugh during an era in which laughter was likely scarce.
Von Mahlsdorf is described as “a martyr made of glass,” and Rachel Neubauer’s sound design is just as delicate as the play’s protagonist. When light and airy pre-World War II songs like “Puttin’ on the Ritz” are played on the Victrola, Lewis stands in reverence. The sounds of the past are juxtaposed with music and noise from 1993, the year Wright interviewed von Mahlsdorf. It’s a subtle reminder not only of von Mahlsdorf’s celebrated antique collection, but also of her gentle personality, born of a different time and preserved despite a hostile environment. As the play progresses, Lewis takes on the role of other characters, from Wright himself, whose quest to understand von Mahlsdorf seems rooted in his own identity as a gay man from a small town, to over-the-top German talk-show hosts who evoke the energy of an Alan Cummings performance. Regardless of their time on stage, Lewis develops them all into full characters. That’s most apparent when they converse — Lewis isn’t simply talking to himself; the characters are there, even when the audience can’t see them.
The play’s final moments are breathtaking, and it’s clear that von Mahlsdorf’s character defies
Cary Wendell’s set design also creates a navigable scape. It is always refreshing to see a simple arrangement of set pieces and props — in this case a table, two chairs, hanging antiques, and a Victrola and its stand — used to its fullest capacity. Complicated sets can distract an audience, particularly in a carefully balanced show like “I Am My Own Wife.” Here, the set is a blank canvas. As the play comes full circle you can see the lives, real and imaginary, of the people who might have owned a clock, an armoire, or a sturdy table being painted onto the set. The simple costumes designed by Maura Suter act similarly. With only one costume change, which takes place onstage, the black nun-like outfit gives Lewis more room for versatility.
The sets, costumes, and sound design work in concert with Lewis, and they act as symbols that pose a string of fascinating questions. How did von Mahlsdorf survive those two brutal regimes — not only physically, but without the slightest change in the way she sees the world? How much of her past is based in reality, and how much is her own construct?
Those questions may never be truly answered. The play’s final moments are breathtaking, and it’s clear that von Mahlsdorf’s character defies easy classification. Lewis expertly captures those complexities and shows that she is not a caricature or a historical footnote, but a person.
New Hampshire Theatre Project’s production of “I Am My Own Wife” is on stage at West End Studio Theatre, 959 Islington St., Portsmouth, through Feb. 1. Shows are Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. Tickets are $26, available online at nhtheatreproject.org or by calling 603-431-6644 ext. 5.