When the Jungle Theater first tackled Doug Wright's award-winning examination of the life of Charlotte von Mahlsdorf five years ago, the show became a sensation, both for its engaging style and virtuoso performance by Bradley Greenwald, who took on dozens of characters in the one-actor play. In the years since, I Am My Own Wife has been one of the most requested shows for a return production.
Fans will get their wish starting Friday, but this isn't just a recreation of the original production.
"Each of us enjoys the challenge of going back to the material. After a certain amount of time goes by, you can rescale the peak with greater assurance and find other vistas along the way," says director Joel Sass. "We know the shape and route of the play, now we can explore the ancillary peaks that weren't accessible the first time."
I Am My Wife traces the life and notoriety of Charlotte, a transvestite who lived in Germany during the Nazis and then in East Germany for the decades that followed. She lived quietly and openly throughout these years, and became a sensation after the fall of communism. As Wright developed his story about the woman, more details emerged, including the fact that she had spied for the East German secret police, the Stasi, for years.
Greenwald, fresh from playing Claudius in the Jungle's production of Hamlet, purposely avoided the material until about six weeks ago. "I didn't want to think about it much before we started working on it," he says. "I read through it once, and was struck by how strong the play was. The play itself is quite moving in addition to presenting the epic storyline.
"It's been much more fun than I thought it would be. I knew it would be hard work, but I didn't know how much fun there would be. There are gestures we started in 2006 that we are not finishing in 2011," he adds.
Both Sass and Greenwald see the play's central unraveling of this complex character important in today's culture. "There's a constant dynamic of confronting the inconvenient humanity that underpins a mythic figure. For some reason, we suffer a real disappointment when confronted by contradictions in the character of someone you admire. It's not a subject that has an expiration date," Sass says.
Charlotte's "flaws are suggested in the play. She never denies anything. She has her own way of answering questions that are not direct or linear. I think it's a particular type of honesty, not a personal flaw. The way people take it is the flaw," Greenwald says.
Using a single actor also gives the piece power. "If the story were told in a conventional manner, it wouldn't be as potent; it would just be another biography play with an interesting figure. With one actor, it makes Charlotte's story even more thrilling and accessible. It's not diluted at all," Greenwald says. "And all of the other characters are seen in a black dress."