Historic heroism

I Am My Own Wife (Oriel Entertainment Group and Brisbane Powerhouse)

Brisbane Powerhouse, Visy Theatre

April 4 – 8

Generally speaking, shows about Nazis are not expected to be funny (although I did see “Hitler! The Musical” at the Edinburgh Fringe and it was hilarious). Yet, “I Am My Own Wife” manages to bring many moments of humour to its pathos, creating an absorbing audience experience.

It is early in the 1990s and although the Berlin Wall is has fallen, its legacy remains not just its namesake city, but in the hearts and minds of those around the world who continue to experience discrimination for their differences. After visiting the ramshackle Grunderzeit museum of historic German household effects, young, gay US playwright Doug Wright begins a conversation with its avid collector steward, pioneering transgender woman Charlotte Mahlsdorf. This fascinating play is what culminated from the hundreds of hours of his subsequent interviews with a woman who remembered 1945 like it was yesterday.

On stage, Charlotte’s tell of life with her Nazi father, imprisonment for murder and her creation of a secret Weimar cabaret in her basement are shared through a succession of first-person accounts, filled with wit and humour in translation misunderstandings, but also honest humanity as she divulges the stories behind the preserved items within her home.

Clearly, Wright is in awe of his muse’s defiance and compassion, but this devotion is challenged with revelation of her role as an enthusiastic Stasi informant, which leads to his declaration, “I need to believe in her stories as much as she does.” It is a crucial moment that sums up much of what makes “I Am My Own Wife” so special. The show offers an important message about the essential worth of society’s narratives, but its beauty comes from its presentation as a story rather than a political work.

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The other exceptional thing about the show is that its tale is told by just a single performer, Ben Gerrard, who easily alternates between over 30 characters of different ages, genders and nationalities. Each character is captured perfectly, yet convincingly understated. This restraint is evident from the first moment that Gerrard steps onto the stage as the controversial 65-year-old German transgender woman, silent, still and staring into the souls of audience members before embarking on her against-the-odds story of survival of the Nazi and Communist regimes. Indeed, in Gerrard’s hands, she is an always-enigmatic creation of equal parts eccentricity, vulnerability and strength. So flawless is his performance that it often feels like there is more than one person on stage. And under Shaun Rennie’s direction, they are each allowed a significant voice.

It is easy to appreciate the play’s receipt of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and Tony Award for Best Play; the writing is incredibly clever in its descriptive imagery of the smallest moments that collect to become a lifetime, and its share of Charlotte’s moment of salvation when, as a teen, she barely escaped execution at the hands of the Nazis, makes for a particularly profound experience.

Everything is enhanced by the show’s aesthetics. Lighting and shadows work wonderfully to enhance dramatic moments and the semi-translucent paper screens of documents, photos and maps, becomes a character of its own when backlit.

“I Am My Own Wife” is a historic story of the type we all need… the story of a heroic individual but also so much more. It shows how the truth is not just stranger than fiction, but often more interesting too. And when the play ends with moments of Charlotte’s own voice from the real tape recordings, it is a reminder of its reality to leave audiences lost for words in awe of its achievement.

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