Amazing life stands revealed at Performance Network - but is it true?

'I Am My Own Wife' examines LGBT life under Nazi, communist rule

By Donald V. Calamia

ANN ARBOR - Something mysterious happened last Friday night at the Michigan premiere of "I Am My Own Wife" at Ann Arbor's Performance Network Theatre.

For starters, there were noticeably more members of the LGBT community in attendance than usual - and that's saying something, since the Network is one of the LGBT-friendliest theaters around. So it was nice to see LGBT couples comfortably holding hands and lovingly touching each other both during the show and after, and there was at least one transsexual - a striking woman with a proud, beautiful smile - who seemed quite at ease milling about the crowd. (She's not like that at work, I'm told.)

What's more, it was even nicer to realize that no one in the mostly straight, sold-out crowd seemed to notice. Or care.

But what was even more intriguing was the reaction of the crowd immediately after the performance. For rather than the usual platitudes echoing throughout the lobby, I was amazed to overhear - and participate in - some very open and honest discussions about what they just experienced. Many theatergoers seemed stunned by the play - but in a positive way, which resulted in some immediate and deeply philosophical conversations among friends and strangers alike.

Which, quite frankly, is what great theater SHOULD do. And the Network's production of "I Am My Own Wife" is just that: great theater!

That's because not only does author Doug Wright - who's also a major character in the play - present us with a fascinating, true-life enigma for which there is no easy answer, his story is brought to life by two of the area's most respected talents: director Gillian Eaton and actor Malcolm Tulip.

Wright's story begins in 1992 with a phone call from his childhood friend, a bureau chief for U.S. News and World Report in Berlin. Upon reviewing recently released secret government files, the friend discovered a story "too extreme" for his publication, but one that intrigues the playwright. So for the next few years, Wright meets and interviews Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, a gay man born Lothar Berfelde in 1928 who somehow survived the Nazis and the communists while living openly as a transvestite in East Berlin. It's an amazing life the now 65-year-old museum owner reveals, but the playwright's faith in his project is shaken when news leaks that Charlotte had been an informant for the secret police. Others challenge the authenticity of her story. If that's all true, will it harm his play? Or does it make her more human?

It's the character's humanity that shines brightly in the Network's production. But it couldn't have been easy for Tulip, who plays 35 characters of various ages, sexes and nationalities. Plus, as a Brit, Tulip must not only speak acceptable German, but also English with a German accent. If that isn't complicated enough, he must also speak English using various American and foreign accents.

While Tulip is generally quite adept at keeping each character distinct from every other - there's only one minor costume change - it's his Charlotte that is most magnificent. Each gesture and every glance carefully defines her, and one particular moment - when she's being viciously attacked by the press - is both revealing and stunning. This just might be the best work of his already impressive career.

Direction by Eaton is spot-on, as are the carefully timed light and sound changes that assist Tulip's transformations from one character or scene to the next.

"I Am My Own Wife" runs Thursday-Sunday at Performance Network Theatre, 120 E. Huron, Ann Arbor, through Aug. 27. Tickets: $20-$34.50. For information: 734-663-0681 or visit http://www.performancenetwork.org.

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