The Rep has staged its share of shows that feature one or two actors portraying myriad characters: Fully Committed, The Syringa Tree and Stones in His Pockets come to mind. Now we can add to the list the Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winning I Am My Own Wife, though the Rep's current production brings with it a riskier and more risqué storyline. Perhaps, having built an audience last year for its comparatively edgy Off-Ramp series, the Rep is hoping to lure a few folks to the Loretto-Hilton's mainstage. At any rate, this fact-based tale of East German transvestite Charlotta von Mahlsdorf presents a stylistic bridge between Off-Ramp's gay-themed Take Me Out and the Rep's next mainstage production, Pirandello's highly theatrical Henry IV.
Playwright Doug Wright makes himself a visible character in Wife, exploring his struggle with how best to portray Charlotta's life story. His struggle with the German language is humorous and nicely countered by his genuine dilemma about what parts of her narrative are true. Wright begins with hero worship he comments that "growing up gay in the Bible Belt" only gives him an inkling of what it must have been like for Charlotta to survive the repressive Nazi and Stasi regimes. But as his friendship with the quixotic Charlotta grows, so does his realization that parts of her "story" might not be accurate, and that she navigated questionable moral terrain while working as a Stasi informant. Miraculously a metaphor arrives in the mail after Charlotta's death that provides Wright with a pictorial representation of the conflicting forces in her life: It's a photo of Charlotta as a boy, with his arms around two tiger cubs. Whether you see the tigers as the Nazi and Stasi forces or as suggestions of a sexuality that would put Charlotta in harm's way, the image resonates as a true reflection of a remarkable life.
Arnie Burton excels in the Herculean task of single-handedly creating an entire cast of characters while wearing a black dress, pearls and orthopedic shoes. While Charlotta is the central character, we also meet members of her family, colleagues and soldiers of all varieties (Nazi, American, East German), not to mention American playwright Doug Wright and a host of international reporters. Each transition, physical posture and vocal inflection is sharply choreographed; there's never confusion about which character is speaking, and the ease with which Burton moves from one character to the next is stunning. It's an acting masterpiece that truly deserves the standing ovation he received opening night.
But Burton is only the most visible member of a talented ensemble of artists, each of whom contributes key elements. Set designer Marie Anne Chiment, who also created the costumes, fashions a deceptively simple-looking drawing room with sharply angled beams and sparse furniture of the Grunderzeit period Charlotta loved, and the walls hold secrets that are slyly revealed as the story unfolds. Lighting designer F. Mitchell Dana clearly delineates the story's numerous locations, working seamlessly with Chiment's set and Burton's movements. Joined with Joe Payne's sound design, Dana's lights create everything from realistic bombing during the war to a West Berlin strip of gay bars. This veritable symphony of the senses is conducted flawlessly by veteran Rep stage managers T.R. Martin and Tony Dearing.
The most important invisible contributor to the solid theatrical package is director John Going. His experience with complicated one-person plays and elaborate period comedies (like Fully Committed and The Importance of Being Earnest both of which he has directed at the Rep) is reflected in his sophisticated manipulation of all the theatrical elements at his disposal. From the simple opening moment (in which Charlotta encounters the audience and shares her love of gramophones) to the dramatic portrayal of her father's murder to a complex news conference each scene is lovingly crafted by a director who understands the collaborative nature of theater.
Ultimately, of course, it's the audience that completes the experience. The work of a creative ensemble comes to nothing if no one is present to enjoy it. This production celebrates the power of theater and the mystery, not only of Charlotta's life, but of each individual's unique perspective and experience.