When I arrived at the theatre last Friday afternoon I knew it was going to be a different experience in the Playhouse. Tom Ferguson, the actor who plays Charlotte von Mahlsdorf and more than 30 other characters, was reclining on an Oriental rug on the set. Director Sherry Kratzer and Lighting Designer Angie Merwin stood before the front row of seats, sorting out another piece of the complex web of technical interface the play inhabits. Set Designer Drew Hill emerged from stage left to join the confab. Sound Tech Ed Cobb's voice echoed from somewhere behind me. The atmosphere was focused and charged, permeated with a unity of purpose. Tom, Sherry, and I adjourned upstairs to the rehearsal room and sat down at a table to have conversation. I wanted to know how they arrived at the choice of this play.
Sherry Kratzer said, "I had heard of this play and I sought it out. I went to see a 10th anniversary "black box" production in New York, with no tech. I had Tom in mind; I see someone's talent, and I find a show. We talked about it over a year ago, and even though there was initial opposition to the play having only one actor, we felt we were able to present it. The directorial opportunity of being one-on-one with an actor is priceless. The vision is having people coming out of theatre in a thoughtful state; everyone watching will have their own experience depending on who they are. Our hope is that when people come for these two hours they will have an experience where there will be very little else they can think about. It is a more intimate sort of show, and will be contactful."
Tom told me about his background and training as an actor, and how he wound up working in TV production for 30 years.
"I saw Jefferson Mays play this role on Broadway in 2004," he said. "I had been away from acting for 20 years, but this experience impacted me so strongly I wished I had stayed in acting - it made me want to get back on the stage. When I heard Sherry was going to do 'I Am My Own Wife,' I was electrified - I knew Sherry was the right person to direct it. She helps coach and guide you as an actor. I feel with each production I have done up until this one, I have been wiping off the cobwebs from my craft. This play is one of the most difficult things I have done as an actor and a creative person. And now, with the anticipation of two weeks before opening, my thought process is entirely absorbed with it."
'I Am My Own Wife' was written by Doug Wright to document the story of Charlotte von Mahlsdorf's life and her 30 years of survival as a transgendered woman during two of the most oppressive German regimes: The Third Reich and Communism. He was fascinated with the trajectory of her life, her persona, and as Kratzer put it, "She is the victor, and the victor writes the history." After enduring and surviving persecution, von Mahlsdorf wound up being presented with the Cross of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany for advancing the cause of sexual freedom.
She was instrumental in starting the German gay liberation movement. The play takes place in the Granderzeit Museum she created and curated, a museum of the objects of daily life. These were objects and furniture that she had found helping a second-hand dealer clear out the apartments and houses of deported Jews and Germans who fled to West Germany. Ferguson as von Mahlsdorf takes us on a tour of the museum. He turns the kaleidoscopic wheel of Charlotte's life and the memories are visited through his performance of more than 30 characters: "How do you react off of yourself? It can be a very lonely experience."
Ferguson started the process of learning the lines and perfecting the German accent 6 months ago. The old school house in Arlington that housed the initial rehearsals was just the atmosphere he and Kratzer needed to nurture the mood of the museum, of the "everyday" household items von Mahlsdorf collected - "Old, comfy, cozy, creaky." Doug Hill's set and Angie Merwin's lighting are merged in a unique way that marries the technical aspects to the esoteric nature of this play.
Weston Playhouse donated pieces from their set when they did this play several years ago, and were "very generous," Kratzer said. "Generous" is a word that kept coming up in the conversation: Ferguson and Kratzer use it in describing their experience with each other as actor and director, and use it to describe Hill and Merwin's contributions. A one-person play looks to have become an artists' cooperative.
Generosity is readily extended to me when I ask to see some of the play. Ferguson ignites into the first act. I see the inner curtains of his performance raise and lower for each character, for each part of Charlotte's life. One life opens into another, the kaleidoscope of colors and shapes and emotions revolves its elements one into another, and into my own life, because this play reaches into each of our inner Universes for the experience that is unique to us, into what our own lives have survived and birthed. Art has not just survived - it is thriving and vibrant, and this production underscores that again and again.
"I Am My Own Wife" can be experienced at The Dorset Playhouse on March 7, 8, 14, and 15 at 7:30 p.m. and on March 9 and 16 at 2 p.m. The opening night performance will be followed by a reception with food and drink provided by Thyme Savor Foods, also the sponsor of this production.
Tickets can be reserved or bought online at dorsetplayers.org, or call the Box Office at 802-867-5777.