CVRep’s I AM MY OWN WIFE a Meditation On Identity As Dress-Up
by Armin Callo
The Coachella Valley Repertory Theatre’s (CVRep’s) mission statement provides that it is an educational and dramatic organization presenting “thought-provoking, innovative theater of substance . . . that enrich, enhance and impact the quality of life for residents and visitors in the Coachella Valley.” This is an ambitious goal, particularly for such a small, professional regional theater. In their current production, I AM MY OWN WIFE, CVRep explores the weighty concepts of truth and identity. Substantive? Yes. Provocative and innovative? Yes, but would CVRep pull it off? The answer is a resounding “YES.”
Merriam-Webster defines “truth” as “agreement with fact or reality.” “Identity” is defined as “the set of qualities that make a person different from other people,” and conversely as “the state of being exactly alike.” Oddly, the two definitions for identity seem at odds with each another, providing for both a state of being different and a state of being exactly alike. Two sides of the same coin. So, where is the “truth” in that? Where is that illusive agreement with fact or reality?
And more importantly, what does I AM MY OWN WIFE have to do with these concepts?
True (there’s that concept again), the play’s title is perplexing enough. Add to this the intriguing advertising text: “I AM MY OWN WIFE tells the fascinating tale of Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, a real-life German transvestite who managed to survive both the Nazi onslaught and the repressive East German Communist regime.” Really? I was convinced that this production would either succeed beyond my wildest imagination, or it would fail with a “thud” loud enough to echo throughout the entire Coachella Valley and the wider Inland Empire itself.
Ambitious works -- works of true substance -- do this. They create in the viewer diametrically-opposed binary reactions. There is either jaw-dropping awe or nose-pinching disdain. Either/or and nothing in between. As for the CVRep’s current production, it produced in this reviewer “shock-and-awe” that would be worthy of any supporter of George W. Bush (literary license here, no politics intended).
In a nutshell, the work is astonishing, both the play itself and the production. Timely, too. In this “Caitlyn-Jenner-Period,” gender issues are both topical and more freely discussed. Not so during the period of the real-life Charlotte von Mahlsdorf (b. 1928 – d. 2002).
Playwright Doug Wright raises more than just gender issues in I AM MY OWN WIFE. Yes, there are the issues of male/female genitals and “masculine/feminine” behaviors, whether learned and/or innate. At one point, Charlotte is asked: “Are you a boy or a girl?” Additionally, and more importantly, Mr. Wright examines the issue of identity itself, asking both his character(s) and himself, and in turn the audience, “what are you?” and “who are you?” And where is that illusive agreement with fact and reality?
These are great big and weighty identitarian issues. They range from the identity we adopt from our families given our biological organs (genitals), our familial environments, and those we eventually create given our challenges, our desires, our crisis points, and our opportunities. A sort of “dress up” if you will. Identity as a form of transvestism itself.
This is the stylistic language of I AM MY OWN WIFE. In his play, Mr. Wright uses both an innovative narrative form (inserting himself within the art he is creating; the playwright as both creator and character at once, creating/inventing himself in 35 roles) and a unique theatrical language (journalistic interviews which itself births a play). As a result, Mr. Wright creates a transformative iteration of storytelling itself. Interweaving journalistic inquiry with prurient curiosity, Mr. Wright fashions narrative, chronology, memory and history into a new trope for identity itself.
In his “A Note From The Playwright” included in the evening’s program, Mr. Wright notes the inherent fiction within the context of “documentary non-fiction” narration: “I Am My Own Wife draws upon several sources: transcribed interviews I conducted with its subject, . . . letters we exchanged . . . the public record, . . . and my own personal, sometimes selective remembrances of our encounters. I have also taken the customary liberties of the dramatist: editing for clarity, condensing several pivotal characters into one utilitarian one and imagining some scenes I only heard recounted . . . while inventing others for narrative continuity.” Truth and that illusive “agreement with fact or reality.”
Interestingly, Charlotte von Mahlsdorf is the “curator” of a self-created museum. Merriam-Webster defines “curator” as “one in charge of the care and collection of a museum, zoo, or other place of exhibit.” A curator selects and edits items for the collection. This is, by its very nature, an identitarian quality. In fact, Charlotte is specifically asked about the care of items in her museum, queried if she polishes and/or repairs the items within the collection. She answers in the negative, asserting that even the dirt, damage, and imperfections work in concert to give the item its unique quality and identity.
Additionally, within the odd context of a museum – “a place of exhibit” -- I could not help but think that Charlotte has, in turn, created a wonder-circus around her, placing herself as its primary featured draw. Charlotte as “the bearded lady” or “the tattooed oddity” within a cabinet of curiosities. Most fittingly is the idea that all these “facts” lie within the context of “chronicled truth” and “documented history” of the 20th century. As they say, “you couldn’t make this up.” Mr. Wright simply saw an opportunity to draw these facts out to the light and let nature shine, blemish and all.
Brilliant. The play is a singular vision of skill and innovation. It is at once direct and accessible, yet also coded and purposefully obscure, like transvestism itself. It is genius. No wonder the play won both the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the Tony Award for Best Play in 2004.
Needless to say, a play of such complexity -- of such cerebral intensity and potential to confuse -- under less skilled hands would have resulted in chaos. At best yawn-yawn ennui or, at worst, that nose-pinching disdain. Not so here. Vince Gatton (of The Sonnet Project, USA 2014), playing Charlotte von Mahlsdorf and 34 other roles, is mesmerizing. It is nothing short of a tour-de-force bravado performance. Likely the very best performance by any actor in the Coachella Valley for 2016. And under the skilled hands of director Ron Celona, we get a most-satisfying evening of provocative entertainment. This is a must see. And as Lilly Tomlin’s five-and-a-half-year old character Edith Ann would say, “ . . . and that’s the truth!”
I AM MY OWN WIFE is performed at 7:30 p.m., Wednesday through Saturday; and 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, March 27, at the Coachella Valley Repertory Theatre at 69930 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage, CA. Tickets are $48. For tickets or more information, call 760-296-2966, or visit cvrep.org.
Armin’s Grade: A