By Milan Paurich
Winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award for Drama, Doug (“Quills,” “Grey Gardens”) Wright’s “I Am My Own Wife” tells the extraordinary true story of antiquarian Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, who survived the Nazi and Communist regimes in East Berlin as a transvestite.
Based on conversations between the playwright and von Mahlsdorf, “Wife” is a “one-man show” in name only. It actually features more than 40 characters, all of them interpreted by a single actor.
Starring in the Michael Dempsey-directed, Oakland Center for the Arts production is Jimmy McClellan, who wowed audiences last spring in Christopher Fidram’s brilliant Oakland staging of “Dinner With Friends.”
In a recent interview, Dempsey discussed his attraction to the show and the particular challenges of helming a play with only one performer.
Q. What was it about “I Am My Own Wife” that made you think, “I want/need to direct this”?
A. As you get older, you become aware of the malleability of history. Our memories — and our motives — are fallible, and this shapes how history is recorded. On the surface, this play is the true story of Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, an East German man who miraculously survived both the Nazis and the brutal Communist secret police (the Stasi) while living as an openly gay transvestite. But Von Mahlsdorf not only survived, she became a champion of German cultural history through her lifelong passion for antique furniture, phonographs and recordings and by rescuing them from regimes attempting to rewrite history. But on a deeper level, the play is about the evasions, omissions and compromises we make, both in our heads and the world, to survive. Von Mahlsdorf started as a hero to Wright, but when her Stasi file appeared to reveal that she was a collaborator, he discovered that he couldn’t tell this story without becoming a character in it as well. It doesn’t matter if you’re gay or straight; anyone with a brain and a heart will relate to the challenges and perils involved in preserving the truth and not whitewashing our past or casting away the troublesome contradictions that make us all human.
Q. Your last two directorial outings (The Youngstown Playhouse’s “Curtains” and “Macbeth”) were large-scale, technically difficult affairs. Was it a deliberate choice to helm something “simpler” (i.e. a one-man piece such as “I Am My Own Wife”) after those shows?
A. Absolutely! Those were wonderful but exhausting shows, so it’s been fun to get back to the basics of great theater: a talented actor and a brilliant script. Of course, there’s really no such thing as a “simple” play. Every work has its own unique challenges. This piece, for instance, may not need 150 costumes or a broadsword battle, but it required intense historical research. I’m grateful to the Oakland for giving me the chance to direct such an intimate, delicate and moving piece like “Wife.”
Q. How do you make a one-actor play not seem static — or overly fussy by adding extraneous “busy-ness”? Are there any special tricks of the trade you can share with us?
A. It’s definitely tricky. You simply can’t stage a one-man show like a normal play. Hopefully, we’ve found the right balance of motion and stillness. The goal is to forget the mechanics and simply watch all those wonderful characters on the stage. It requires great physical specificity and subtlety to stay clear about where we are and who is speaking to whom without the actor jumping around in a clich d manner. This is especially hard when there are simultaneous layers of “reality,” such as when the actor is playing a character talking to another character who is impersonating another character while telling a story. Whew! (laughs)
Q. How important is it for Charlotte von Mahlsdorf to make an instantaneous connection with the audience? Is that more of the writer’s, director’s or actor’s job?
A. It’s very important, and it’s everyone’s responsibility. As a former Hollywood writer, I can tell you that writers get grumpy about the issue — no actor or director has ever won an Oscar without having a great character written for them. In this case, Wright captured Charlotte’s charm and natural appeal quite beautifully. Jimmy McClellan’s Charlotte is so funny and approachable and likable that I truly had to do very little to facilitate that bond of empathy and rapport between Charlotte and the audience. In the space of just a couple of minutes, you completely stop thinking about this person as a man in a dress and just watch her.
Q. Casting von Mahlsdorf must have been a terrifying prospect. Were you ever afraid that you might not find an actor up to the perilous challenge?
A. Actually, no. As a rule, I don’t believe in pre-casting, but when I proposed this particular show, I said that it could only be done with one of the best actors in town. And the same name kept coming back: Jimmy (McClellan). From the start, the project hinged on Jimmy’s interest. Luckily, he took the bait. It was the right call — there’s something truly magical and special happening on that stage.
Q. What are you working on next?
A. Next I’ll be directing what I consider to be the greatest rock musical of all time, “Jesus Christ Superstar,” at Salem Community Theatre. When you see who’s in the cast, your jaw will drop. It’ll definitely be worth the drive for Youngstown-area theater and rock-and-roll fans this June.