As acting challenges go, the one presented by I Am My Own Wife is daunting.
The man portraying Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, the complex central figure in Doug Wright’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, has to make the audience fall for a sweet old guy wearing a black skirt and blouse, pearls and sensible shoes. He also has to pull off lightning-fast vocal and physical changes to play nearly three dozen male and female characters, sometimes carrying on conversations among several distinct characters. Navigating the dramatic twists and turns of an 80-page script, he must bring an extraordinary story to life with the help of unseen theatrical collaborators.
But really? Once the lights come up, I Am My Own Wife rests on the shoulders of the actor playing Germany’s famous “tranny granny.” And by that measure, Carbonell Award-winning actor Tom Wahl has powerful shoulders.
Miami’s Zoetic Stage has just begun its third season with a riveting production of Wright’s play in the Carnival Studio Theater at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts. With the loss of several important South Florida companies, Zoetic is ascending at just the right time, becoming another valuable player on the scene, a company that can deliver first-rate work to audiences eager to experience meaningful theater. Certainly, I Am My Own Wife achieves that standard.
Wahl, who has proven himself equally adept at drama and comedy, draws on both skill sets in I Am My Own Wife. In playing Charlotte, a transvestite who was born Lothar Berfelde in 1928, Wahl has to suggest multiple levels of the character’s complex persona. Recounting a murder, he’s fierce; recalling Charlotte’s first meeting with a man she would help send to prison, he’s flirtaceous; dealing with questions on Charlotte’s involvement with the dreaded East German secret police, he’s quietly evasive.
He also achieves an array of voices, pitches, accents and postures for 35 different characters. Charlotte speaks with a German accent (and sometimes in German) in a soft, higher register. As Wright, the playwright who came to view Charlotte as a kind of remarkable surrogate gay grandma, he’s an enthusiastic American talking with the fervor of a writer who knows he’s onto a career-changing story. He shifts through the accents of international reporters grilling Charlotte, and he explores myriad ways to sound masculine and feminine.
In a performance clearly shaped by his collaboration with director Stuart Meltzer, Wahl pulls off innumerable moments of transformation. One moment, he’s the energetic, Texas-raised Wright. Then, with a swivel of one hand, he becomes Charlotte – older, more feminine, decidedly German.
Though it’s Wahl out there doing the artistic heavy lifting, Zoetic’s design team has given him has given him a striking, fascinating environment in which to play. Michael McKeever’s beautiful set is like Charlotte herself: a façade hiding secrets and old treasures. Luke Klingberg’s lighting is precise, revelatory and emotionally communicative. Costume designer Alberto Arroyo provides Charlotte’s signature getup, and Meltzer’s sound design supplies the sounds of World War II, romantic old recordings and so much more.
Solo shows are as varied as any other kind of play, and Wright’s rightfully celebrated I Am My Own Wife is its own kind of mountain. Wahl and Zoetic make it to the summit, and in the process give rapt audiences an insight into a fascinating figure and a demonstration of the actor’s art.