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She is polite and soft-spoken. Almost nun-like. With her black boxy dress, orthopedic shoes and head scarf — plus a string of pearls, the only carefree nod to ornamentation — she moves with a determined, contemplative air. When she asks a visitor for a small donation for the museum she’s spent her life building, it is with a demure nod and a slight bow, as if the mere mention of money detracts from the greater glory of preserving history.

But make no mistake. Charlotte Von Mahlsdorf is not a pushover. There is steel within.

From our first meeting with the central character in the beautifully staged and acted production of “I Am My Own Wife” from StageWorks Fresno, it’s clear Charlotte is a survivor. In the hands of Terry Lewis, who gives the most riveting performance I’ve seen from him in numerous local theater outings, and director J. Daniel Herring, whose careful and deft touch is evident throughout this well crafted production, a perplexing and entrancing character comes to life in a rich, textured portrayal. The challenge for Lewis doesn’t stop with Charlotte, however. In this one-person show — which calls for a male actor to play a famous 20th Century transvestite — Lewis portrays all the characters, more than 40, in a tale that gently nudges us toward a deeper understanding not only of an interesting historical figure but also the nature of history itself.

Along with Charlotte, who was born in Nazi Germany as Lothar Befelde, the other pivotal character in “My Own Wife” is the playwright, Doug Wright. (He won the Pulitzer Prize for the play.) As an unabashed “Charlotte fan” who in the 1990s began a series of interviews with the LGBT icon, Wright was prepared to write a glowing, heroic account of Charlotte’s life. But while in the process of doing his research, some disturbing information about Charlotte came to light. Wright sat on the script for many years, unsure of how to proceed. But he eventually had a breakthrough: He would write himself into the story.

And in that regard Wright provided a subtle counterbalance to the myths that so often mark our “historical” accounts of real lives. The ambiguous nature of Charlotte’s alleged actions doesn’t detract from the impact of the storytelling; if anything, it’s the key ingredient that makes this play ache with humanity.

Joel C. Abels’ set and Madi Spate’s nuanced lighting design takes advantage of the small stage in the Fresno Art Museum’s Bonner Auditorium to full effect. (Even the red walls of the theater and stage area seem perfect.) On one level the set recreates the museum of period collectibles that Charlotte dedicated her life to preserving. But on a more symbolic level it also stands for the overall sweep of a life, you could say, with all the nooks and crevices of memory crammed with carefully curated objects.

And who is that curator? In this case, the playwright. As he tells us in the play, he needs to believe in Charlotte. He needs to know that a brave person can choose to live a life of non-convention and be able to survive two of the most repressive regimes (the Nazis and the East German secret police) ever inflicted upon humanity. All lives — and all history — are edited. That doesn’t make that history wrong, or even untrustworthy. But it requires a sophistication on the part of the reader or viewer to acknowledge the lens of the storyteller. (And that’s what critical thinking — which is the oft-neglected but oh so important part of the education process, is all about.)

Many actors have attempted the role of Charlotte, most famously the Tony Award-winning Jefferson Mays, for whom the part was written. I’m sure that every performer brings some subtle new approach to the role. But I’m happy to say that Lewis was my introduction. Handling a dizzying array of accents, vocal ranges and abrupt shifts in physicality, Lewis’ precision and fluidity is remarkable.

Also key to the production’s impact is the music, which was Charlotte’s great salvation. (Skylar Montierth did the lighting design.) There’s a moment in the show when Lewis, fingering the string of pearls that reliably acts each time as a visual transition into the character of Charlotte, puts one of her beloved albums on the phonograph. You can sense the salving action of that music, the way it soothed what was in many ways a hard slog of a life. It’s a testament to Lewis and StageWorks that they’re able to honor that life with such precision and feeling.

Responses to "THEATER REVIEW: ‘I Am My Own Wife’"

Chris Mangels says:

I couldn’t agree more with your review, Donald. It is as absolutely stunning piece of theatre and deserves to be seen by as man people as possible. Everyone involved really knocked it out of the park with this production!

Angela Neff says:

I saw this show a few years back in SF and loved it! Glad to see is come to Fresno.

Amelia Ryan says:

Spot on review of a riveting piece of theatre. Terry Lewis is phenomenal, and J. Daniel Herring’s direction–without drawing attention to itself–makes the transitions between characters crystal clear. Remarkable.

Joyce Aiken says:

This is a wonderful production. I hope the theatre is filled to capacity for each of the remaining performances.

Jerry Palladino says:

My partner, Chester, and I were there on opening night, and I again attended Sunday afternoon. Terry’s sensitive performance was spellbinding. Thank you, Donald, for your in-depth review. I Am My Own Wife is a play everyone should see….StageWorks Fresno again gives us quality theatre — the best in town. Hats off to my friends, J. Daniel Herring, Joel Abels and Terry Lewis. You do Fresno proud!

Stephen says:

In my own youth I was exposed to raw, riveting theatre – my hometown had the New American Theatre, the launchpad for many big careers. Intense performances in a small-stage setting with dynamic and artistic and brave/bold choices highlighted the space, which shaped my tastes and needs for the rest of my life.

The key to NAT (as it was called) was it’s artistic director, Jim Sullivan. He carefully loved each season, each show, and while it sometimes didn’t sell tickets well (the local community theater did that with it’s consistent revivals of beloved musicals), it was the only true source of artistic inspiration.

Sound familiar?

Many people hope for full seats at StageWorks’ shows. I don’t. I hope instead for full pockets to continue to keep Joel Abels and his visions alive. I pray he never has to resort to a production of ‘Annie’ to get by, and I continue to marvel at how well he can replace and retrain the actors that move through his hands and his space.

It’s a dream for me personally to have a part of my childhood back, and with every show I can’t wait to speak to others about the artistry of the shows, rather than where we should go eat afterwards.

StageWorks is inspiring other’s lives with each new production. Here’s hoping Joel doesn’t get another itch to move to New York – it’s what happened with Jim Sullivan at NAT, and the shows progressed downward, the seats started filling with stock shows, and eventually, the dream died.

Long live StageWorks. Please.

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