Minnesota audiences are quick to dole out standing ovations. Even so, it’s rare that a show so deeply moves the men and women, theater novices and theater connoisseurs, one-time ticket buyers and season-ticket holders that they all jump to their feet immediately following the closing line. That’s precisely what happened at Saturday night’s performance of I Am My Own Wife at Jungle Theater—and for good reason: Bradley Greenwald positively shines as Charlotte von Mahlsdorf.
More accurately, Greenwald excels as all 35 of the characters he portrays, from Doug Wright (the playwright of I Am My Own Wife) to hateful Neo-Nazi teenagers to the myriad of international reporters bombarding Charlotte with accusations and questions. He gives equal passion and precision to each personality, perfecting accents, facial expressions, and body language to completely morph from one character to another within seconds.
I Am My Own Wife tells the true story of Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, a transvestite antiques collector who survived living in Berlin under the reign of the Third Reich during World War II and later the East German communist government during the Cold War. She was born Lothar Berfelde in 1928, and during her 74 years became well-known for actively aiding and protecting the gay community, most notably by operating a covert cabaret in the basement of her museum, the Mahlsdorf estate, during the Cold War.
Doug Wright also weaves his own narrative into this biographical play. He writes the script as a back-and-forth dialogue between storyteller (Charlotte) and playwright (himself), with a thread of other characters coming to life as Charlotte relates stories from her past. The intimacy formed by this innovative format allows the audience to connect with Charlotte and Wright, giving them a chance to hear and understand both sides of every story.
Although this is a one-man show, the well-curated set, designed by director Joel Sass, also plays a crucial role transformign what could be nothing more than a glorified interview into an active reliving of Charlotte’s life. The most notable pieces are a wardrobe and an Edison phonograph. The wardrobe, shaped like the Mahlsdorf mansion, reveals different props at pivotal points during Charlotte’s stories (the uniform of her father, a Nazi Party leader; the first dress she tried on); the phonograph serves as an insight into one of the ways Charlotte maintained her sanity and love for life despite the many obstacles facing her.
In addition to the set, the sound design by Sean Healey and C. Andrew Mayer adds significant layers of depth and meaning to each story—faux applause during a talk-show interview, camera bulbs flashing, bombs exploding—and Barry Browning operates the lights in such a way that the fixed set is at one moment a jail cell and the next the basement of the mansion. Each of these external elements operates as an additional character in the history-rich, awe-inspiring plot, enhancing Greenwald’s already stellar performance.
While every audience member had his or her own reasons for wildly applauding I Am My Own Wife Saturday night, there’s no doubt that everyone could agree on one thing: this is a show that takes incredible courage, vulnerability, research, and dedication—all of which are masterfully embodied by Bradley Greenwald.
I Am My Own Wife
Through December 18
Jungle Theater, 2951 Lyndale Ave. S., Mpls., 55408, 612-822-7063