IF YOU GO
What: One-man show about a East German who survived the Nazis and the Communists
When: 8 p.m. through Feb. 3. Additional 3 p.m. matinée showings on Jan. 20, 26, 27 & Feb. 2 & 3.
Where: Norris Community Center, 755 Eighth Ave. S., Naples
Cost: $40 & $45, $15 for students
Information: 866-811-4111 or gulfshoreplayhouse.org
On the Web: Sign up to receive more theater news from the Stage Door blog via email.
NAPLES — There's not really any way around this. Pulitzer Prize-winning play "I Am My Own Wife" features one man in a dress performing 37 different roles.
If you don't like that sort of thing, leave.
Of course, that would be a grave mistake, because Kraig Swartz will change your life.
Gulfshore Playhouse specializes in smart, intelligent, thought-provoking theater that Neapolitans can't - and won't - find anywhere else in town. This tale of a cross-dressing East German man who survived both the Nazis and the decades-long Communist regime offers plenty to think - and talk - about. Kristen Coury wouldn't have it any other way.
Before we go any farther, let's get one thing straight-ish. The show is decidedly NOT about a man in a dress. "I Am My Own Wife" represents far more than the biographical tale of Germany's "most famous tranny granny," as the script calls Charlotte. "Wife" conjures up a magnificent, moving fantasia of survival, illustrates the stunning bravery of individualism and most of all, highlights the ability of the human spirit to flourish in even the most repressive conditions.
Based on a true story, the play chronicles the efforts of playwright Doug Wright to ferret out the history, motivations and memories that went into transforming Lothar Berfelde into Charlotte von Mahlsdorf. Audiences see terrifying glimpses of life behind the Iron Curtain, the wonder of a Weimar cabaret and hear the fanatical cackling of East German prostitutes.
Swartz entered "Wife" with a lengthy history of one-man shows under his belt (or blouse, as it were). Coury, for all her talents, had never directed a solo show. The collaboration blooms on stage. Swartz brings his talent for characters and a remarkable ability to slip back and forth between two, three, four personas in any given scene; Coury delivers a sharp eye for detail and her exquisite ability to calculate the maximum impact of every word, every gesture and every movement.
So much of a single person show becomes an exercise in moving an actor through and around the stage. Here, Coury's skill shines. Take a scene where Swartz, as Charlotte, removes pieces of model furniture from a box. The action represents a tour of the Gründerzeit Museum, von Mahlsdorf's East Berlin home.
Every sentence of Charlotte's raspy purr, along with each caress of the fingers along a tiny table or sideboard, reflects a specific rise or fall in the emotion of the sentences. The scene's final words, "And you must put it away!" close with a perfectly timed click as the box snaps shut.
Swartz transforms effortlessly between the three dozen-plus characters in the show. He breathes life into each individual, whether it be husky-voiced barmaid Minna Mahlich or swaggering, bravado-filled American soldier. Even a handful of words provides enough to imagine a vivid, intense portrait inhabiting the stage.
Yet, the demure, sylph-eyed, self-effacing Charlotte remains both Swartz and the play's greatest creation. The debate of "Wife" might be about the depth of Charlotte's possible involvement with the East German secret police and the brutal choices she had to make to survive. The real beauty of piece lies in its ability to look at how the beauty of art - in any form, be it music, culture, furniture, craftsmanship - contributes to humanity's ability to craft a survival narrative.
A striking, beautiful scene occurs near the end of Act One. As Charlotte describes how she saved Berlin bar from destruction by the Communists, Swartz slowly runs his finger over the tabletop.
"If I could, I would take an old gramophone needle and run it along the surface of wood. To hear the voices. All that was said."
In an instant, a Roaring Twenties cabaret springs to life on stage, conjured by little more than a few words, the play of shadows and the soft tinkle of glasses and jazz. "I Am My Own Wife" is not specifically about the Nazis, the Communists, transvestites or anything perverted or wrong. It is about the remarkable human spirit that spins something beautiful, something graceful, something powerful and alive out of the darkest shadows and the most terrible circumstances.
Although Swartz steps, ever so gracefully, into ten and three characters, there exists at least two more vital presences on the stage.
Jennifer Griffin Minor creates a subtle wash of luminosity that deftly allows Coury and Swartz to tighten focus in places and expand the scope of the story in other. In the second half's harrowing opening flashback sequence, set inside a prison cell, audiences glimpse shadows of iron bars rippling over a prone body before the room bursts back into more modern times.
The narrowed intensity reminds viewers to consider exactly what it was that Charlotte faced; the realities of the Cold War were very real to those unfortunate enough to live behind the Iron Curtain. Selling a cuckoo clock in West Berlin in 1971 might net you a tidy profit. In East Berlin, it might land you in prison.
Gabriel Luxton effects a subtle soundscape that eases into the show before audiences realize that there is more than a single voice on the stage. Delicate old recordings, bombing raids and more add delicate spice.
Robert F. Wolin's set, if plainer than I would have liked for such a charismatic character as Charlotte, seems designed specifically not to distract from the acting. A vast oversize door opens into von Mahlsdorf's home; a polished sideboard holds a few treasures, with a prized cylinder gramophone at stage right.
"Wife" offers Neapolitan audiences a brilliant piece of theater that they rarely get the chance to see. Vapid musicals, Neil Simon comedies and throwaway farces might entertain, but they fail to feed the mind. "I Am My Own Wife" marries smart direction, a a bravura performance and top-notch creative work to ensure a spellbinding night of theater.