Unnerving Berlin

Doug Wright Quills Up a Transvestite Mythmaker

Indeed we aren't, and neither is Wright, who will duly appear among the dozen-odd other characters Mays also plays. Because, as in one of those Henry James stories about painters with elusive sitters, Wright is in fact the protagonist of his own play. Charlotte, his principal subject, is his problem: two dramatic truths, living contentedly in conflict in the same person. Playing a batch of characters in one evening is common; Mays does it with grace and a speedy proficiency that is sometimes nothing short of dazzling. Yet what makes the performance great is his grasp of the contradiction that makes the play hypnotic: The Charlotte he embodies is a truth that invites you not to believe it, off-putting and welcoming, utterly frank and phony sounding, in the same instant. We don't know whether to admire Charlotte or suspect her, hail her as a heroine or discredit her as a mythomane. Wright, at the end, says he admires her because he "need[s] to believe" that people like her can exist, and survive, under the worst circumstances of our times. But he has not hesitated to include all the worst and most discreditable information regarding the puzzle of her survival: Like so many East Germans, it develops, Charlotte took a turn at supplying information to the Stasi, the country's secret police. She is a victim who is also a perpetrator and it is unclear to what degree she was under pressure—beyond the pressure of survival that every East German faced.

Antiques and the Stasi: Jefferson Mays as Charlotte von Mahlsdorf
photo: Joan Marcus
Antiques and the Stasi: Jefferson Mays as Charlotte von Mahlsdorf

Details

I Am My Own Wife
By Doug Wright
Playwrights Horizons
416 West 42nd Street
212-279-4200

This is where the beauty of Kaufman's production, formal and hieratic, comes into play. The survival of beautiful things, Charlotte's obsession, is itself a stand against tyranny and brutality. But it can embody, as Charlotte does, an element of moral surrender to the same tyranny. Can a murderer and a spy be a medal-winning curatorial heroine? Or maybe, as the stylized elegance of Kaufman's staging implies, beauty's function is to provide a context, not an answer, for the moral question. While other characters bounce in all directions, Charlotte, in Kaufman's blocking, is always in direct contact or at right angles to us. David Lander's lights, and the doll furniture by Paul Eric Pape that stands in for Charlotte's collection, match Mays in eloquent articulation of Wright's riddle.

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