'I Am My Own Wife' wears a dress to address German history

If you want proof that truth can be stranger than fiction, check out Doug Wright's "I Am My Own Wife." It's a documentary-style play based on interviews the contemporary American playwright did with an elderly transvestite who lived openly during the German Nazi regime and subsequently the East German Communist regime.

Wright's strange-but-true 2003 play, which won both the Pulitzer Prize and the Tony Award for Best Play, is receiving a confident production at Rep Stage at Howard Community College.

The protagonist's life story is not your standard showbiz biography, that's for sure. Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, as this German man called himself, knew at an early age that he preferred to dress and speak like a woman.

Charlotte's home in Berlin was so filled with late-19th-century phonographs and other antiques that the entire place became a private museum that offered public tours personally conducted by Charlotte.

Based on Wright's taped interviews with Charlotte, "I Am My Own Wife" mostly tells this tale in Charlotte's own words. In the Rep Stage production directed by Tony Tsendeas, actor Michael Stebbins becomes Charlotte by wearing a plain black dress and apron, an elegant little pearl necklace, a black scarf to cover the head, and sensible black shoes that presumably make it more comfortable to walk around that museum.

Charlotte, who was born Lothar Berfelde in 1928, relies upon generally straightforward narration to talk about the personal transformation into Charlotte von Mahlsdorf and also the institutional transformation of a house into a museum.

Although Charlotte incorporates witty and slightly naughty observations along the way, the narration maintains a sense of dignity that prevents Charlotte from ever coming across as a stereotypical drag queen. Maintaining this tone is crucial in a presentation that interweaves personal and political content in an essentially serious manner.

Stebbins isn't just playing Charlotte, however, because Wright's script calls upon the actor to also impersonate more than 30 other characters with whom this eccentric museum owner interacts. Without changing costume, Stebbins adjusts his body language and vocal inflection in order to become assorted relatives, friends, lovers, enemies and visiting journalists. Doug Wright is among the other people brought to life here.

Also helping to evoke that Berlin setting in the Rep Stage production are the scenic design by Elizabeth Jenkins McFadden and properties design by Vicki Sussman. Their design incorporates antique furnishings, several picture frames containing illuminated objects and a video screen that notes the several changes in location and situation.

Charlotte is so much at home in this setting that you feel as if a museum director is giving you an obsessively detailed and highly personal tour of the place. As the Doug Wright character in the play says: "She doesn't run a museum. She is one."

"I Am My Own Wife" runs through Nov. 17 in Howard Community College's Studio Theatre, 10901 Little Patuxent Parkway in Columbia. Tickets are $15-$40. Call 443-518-1500 or go to http://www.repstage.org.

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