I Am My Own Wife at Arsht Center: Wahl's Studied Performance Brings a Dollhouse of Memories to Life

I Am My Own Wife, which opened this past weekend at the Arsht Center, is playwright Doug Wright's attempt to explain, and come to terms with, "the single most eccentric individual the world has ever birthed" -- that being Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, a Berlin transvestite who survived Nazi and Communist regimes over the course of her adult life. And it's a successful attempt, though I Am My Own Wife can be a difficult pill to swallow. This is an unusually challenging show, full of arcane language, dense references, and hard-to-decipher accents. Humor is scant. More than a couple of ticket-buyers left after the end of the first act on Saturday.

A solo play, I Am My Own Wife calls for an actor to portray upwards of 30 parts, centrally Charlotte and Doug Wright himself. For this production, courtesy of Zoetic Stage, director Stuart Meltzer cast Tom Wahl, a durable, unassuming actor in many a Miami ensemble who arguably expresses more range in this single show than in his previous corpus as a South Florida actor.

Dressed in a largely unchanging, flowing ecclesiastical garment, Wahl brings surgical precision to his many roles, switching characters and time periods in a moment's notice. He is Doug Wright in the early 1990s, receiving a tip from an expat colleague in Berlin that a transvestite museum owner may be worth writing about. He is the morally complex Charlotte, from the outbreak of World War II to the early 2000s, sharing her life story with Wright about discovering her inner woman (she was born a man, named Lothar Berfelde), narrowly avoiding death at the hands of German officers, killing her Nazi father with a rolling pin, running an illegal cabaret in Communist East Germany, and more. He is Charlotte's monstrous father, her lesbian aunt, a number of Stasi and SS officers, and a slew of TV hosts and reporters of varied nationalities and accents that Wahl conveys with studied accuracy.

It's a performance of the most cerebral kind, virtually flawless but not emotionally gripping. There is an actorly distance in Wahl's technically perfect portrayals; joy, sorrow, and other sensations that great shows rub off on their audiences are largely absent in a performance that seems to linger above them.

The play's glorious set and lighting designs, however -- which combine to act as a secondary character -- do convey its emotional extremities. Wahl presides over scenic designer Michael McKeever's stately, oversized dollhouse of antiques -- a museum dissected into a dozen compartments, lit from within and housing record players and timekeepers (Charlotte's material fetishes) and historic furniture. The objects appear through a haze, like the debris of half-conjured memories, and by shadowing some compartments and highlighting others, the layout becomes an economical way of illuminating different environments and different times. Luke Klingberg's lights proceed to bathe certain scenes in midnight blues, warm yellows and fierce reds, filtering the color to accommodate the mood.

Charlotte's life was so fascinating that it's hard to believe Wright's exploration of it hasn't been optioned yet for the movies. But with theatrical invention this potent, I hope it remains a stagebound animal for the rest of time.

I Am My Own Wife runs at Zoetic Stage at the Arsht Center, 1300 Biscayne Blvd., Miami, through October 21. Tickets cost $40. Call 305-949-6722 or visit arshtcenter.org.

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