Sunday, April 7, 2024

"I Am My Own Wife" at Lakeshore Players Theatre

Lakeshore Players Theatre's ambitious 71st season continues with perhaps the most interesting choice of the season - playwright Doug Wright's solo play I Am My Own Wife, chronicling his interviews with an East German transgender woman known as Charlotte von Mahlsdorf - antiques collector, museum curator, and gay icon. Charlotte lived through the Nazi and Communist occupations of Berlin. She provided a haven for the gay community in East Berlin during a time of persecution, but also worked as an informant for the Stasi (the Communist secret police). She was truly a singular individual, and the play explores not just her life, but also the playwright's investigation into her life, and his conflicting feelings about her complicated life.* I've previously only seen one production of this play 12+ years ago at the Jungle, and I was thrilled to revisit it. It's so smartly written, weaving Charlotte's stories, the playwright's questions, and historical facts into the storytelling. Lakeshore's production in the intimate immersive space of their black box theater features a charmingly detailed design and a tour de force performance by Lewis Youngren. Only five performances remain - don't miss your chance to see the truly impressive work happening out here in the 'burbs of White Bear Lake.

The play is presented as a series of interviews that Doug conducted with Charlotte in her home in Berlin, the Gr├╝nderzeit Museum, in the early 1990s. Charlotte tells the story of her life, and Doug tells the story of writing this play. Charlotte was born a boy in 1928 but always felt more comfortable as a girl. She collected furniture and things from abandoned homes, and eventually started the Museum to house them and share them with people. She moved the legendary gay bar Mulack-Ritze Cabaret into her basement when the Communists shut it down. The Museum was her life, and she received a commendation from the government because of her work. She moved to Sweden in the 1990s when the news came out about her work with the Stasi (which she somehow justified to Doug), and died in 2002.* But this is Doug's story as much as Charlotte's, and even though some of the facts in her stories are questionable, Doug needed to believe in her. He presents the stories as they were relayed to him, and leaves us to decide what's true and what's not. And maybe it doesn't matter; even though Charlotte may have told some fish tales, she lived her life authentically and survived two oppressive and violent regimes that were intolerant of nonconformist individuals like her.

Lewis Youngren as Charlotte von Mahlsdorf
(photo by Kara Salava Photography)
The last person I saw perform this play was the incomparable Bradley Greenwald
, a tough act to follow. But new-to-me actor Lewis Youngren soon wiped out any memories of previous versions as he made this role, or rather roles, entirely his own. But it's not his first experience playing Charlotte, et al. As an Acting Apprentice at Lanesboro's Commonweal Theatre Company in 2017, he chose to perform this play because it meant something to him. That personal connection, and his previous experience with the play, are evident in his performance. As Charlotte he's endlessly delightful, with the warmth of a favorite auntie; as Doug he's curious and determined; as various Nazis and Stasis he's stern and terrifying, transforming from one character to another in the blink of an eye. The role calls for speaking American English, German-accented English, Russian-accented English, authentic German, bad American German, and combinations of all of the above, which he navigates with aplomb (no dialect coach credited). You don't need to know German to enjoy this play, but those with an unused German minor (like me) will enjoy the fun nuggets of German (and Germlish), not all of which is translated.

Lewis Youngren as Charlotte von Mahlsdorf
(photo by Kara Salava Photography)
#TCTheater vet Craig Johnson has worked with nearly every company in town, and returns to Lakeshore after 41 years to direct this piece, giving it his usual clear eye and emotional throughline. A solo play is never really the work of one person, with the direction honing and guiding the performance. They've wisely staged it in the black box space rather than on the main stage, where the intimate story would get lost. Lewis is all over the space, even walking into and through the audience, making us feel like we're really in the museum with Charlotte. The "stage" is in one corner, two small sets of risers against the two walls in the opposite corner. Curtains cover Charlotte's treasures against the walls, pulled back to reveal clocks, bars, victrolas, and more, with detailed and authentic-looking props. A staircase against one wall creates a sense of dimension, allowing one to imagine the space is larger than it is. The lighting design creates some interesting effects, sometimes from behind the curtains, and the sound design features well-timed recordings, including one of the real Doug and Charlotte. Completing the look, Charlotte is dressed in her trademark simple black dress, heavy black shoes, and pearls. (Production design by Eric Morris, sound design by Born Into Reality, costume design by Bronson Talcott, and props design by Vicky Erickson.)

I Am My Own Wife (aka Ich bin Meine Eigene Frau) is a brilliantly constructed play (don't take my word for it - it won the Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize). Lakeshore Players Theatre - a 70+ year old theater in the 'burbs - is giving it fine treatment. I wish it were playing longer than two weekends so that more people would have a chance to see this inspiring, moving, well told story, but maybe if it sells out they'll be forced to bring it back. Next up in this ambitious season - Urinetown, the hilarious social satire musical about how "it's a privilege to pee," directed by the legendary Greta Grosch. With the weather starting to warm up and Lakeshore's season going strong, there's never been a better time to visit lovely lakeside White Bear Lake.


*Some text borrowed from my review of the Jungle Theater's 2011 production.