About Face Theatre stages a reimagined production of Doug Wright’s play about an East German transgender woman who survived both the Nazi and Communist regimes.
More than a decade after it was shaped by a developmental production at Chicago’s About Face Theatre, Doug Wright’s Pulitzer Prize–winning play returns in a quite different form. Wright’s metatheatrical drama is about Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, a real-life German figure who was assigned male at birth but took on a feminine presentation, and survived through the Nazi and Communist regimes and past the fall of the Berlin Wall while living as, in her words, a transvestite. (“Transgender” wasn’t yet a commonly understood concept—certainly not in East Berlin.)
Wright also makes himself a prominent character in the play, as Charlotte’s playwright interlocutor; Wright originally developed the piece with director Moisés Kaufman and his Tectonic Theatre Project, and it bears similarities with others of Tectonic’s docu-style pieces in which the playwrights insert themselves into the action, notably The Laramie Project. But a big part of what made I Am My Own Wife a sensation in the early aughts was that I in the title: Wright wrote it as a play for one actor—originally the astonishing Jefferson Mays—who would shift among dozens of characters.
With Wright’s consent, About Face’s current artistic director Andrew Volkoff has reconceived the piece for a cast of four, with transgender actor Delia Kropp playing Charlotte; Scott Duff essays the part of Wright himself, with Matt Holzfeind and Ninos Baba filling out the “ensemble.” The new approach takes away some of the performative dazzle, and in fact helps to clarify the play’s approach to Charlotte herself.
Kropp brings both an admirable understatement and a perhaps inevitable sense of authenticity to Charlotte; with the virtuosic transformations of the one-man show removed from the equation, Duff’s equally savvy performance shows how Wright doesn’t flatter himself, occasionally acknowledging his own self-serving writerly hopes. Holzfeind and Baba provide fitting support. Volkoff’s reconceiving (which also benefits from gorgeous design work by Brian Prather, John Kelly, Vivian Krouse and others) isn’t likely to usurp Wright’s original, but it makes for a provocative contrast.
About Face Theatre at Theater Wit. By Doug Wright. Directed by Andrew Volkoff. With Delia Kropp, Scott Duff, Matt Holzfeind, Ninos Baba. Running time: 1hr 50mins; one intermission.