Little Orphan Trannies

Big hand for Quad C's puppet Rocky Horror; DTC marries into the myths of Wife

To tell more would be to give away too many of Rocky Horror (Puppet) Show's surprises, which come fast and furiously. "Just like Brad!" as Statler and Waldorf might say.

Now to the grimmer tale of Fraulein Mahlsdorf, who is busy being her own wife over at Dallas Theater Center. This is just the kind of heavily pedigreed production professional theaters love to hype in their season brochures. I Am My Own Wife took all the big awards a few years ago, vaulting Doug Wright, who grew up in Dallas and took part in the children's theater program at DTC in the 1970s, into the pantheon of Pulitzer winners alongside Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, Neil Simon and Sam Shepard. His latest work, just opened on Broadway, is the book for the new musical Grey Gardens, based on the cult classic documentary by the Maysles brothers about the eccentric Bouvier sisters.

Wife is a strange strudel of a play. It's about this real person, a man who lived his life as a woman in East Germany. Wright discovered the elderly Charlotte (who preferred to be thought of as female) in the early 1990s on a tour of her 23-room house, which she called a "museum" and in which she displayed antique furniture, clocks, Victrolas and other items dating back to the 1890s. Fascinated, Wright made repeated trips to Charlotte's home, gathering hours of interviews about her life and the life of other gays in wartime Germany. He turned the anecdotes into the two-act play.

Damien Atkins plays 34 characters in DTC's I Am My Own Wife.
Damien Atkins plays 34 characters in DTC's I Am My Own Wife.

Wright makes himself a character in Wife, and while there's really no plot, much of it deals with what the writer found out about Charlotte that is at odds with her own memories, like how she ratted out an antique dealer friend to the East German secret police, for whom she was a regular spy. "I'm curating her now," the Wright "voice" says in the play, "and I don't have the faintest idea what to edit and what to preserve."

And that is a central problem with Wife. Some of the stories Charlotte tells are fascinating; others, ho-hum. Charlotte is no Anne Frank. She's kind of a prickly old bird, not a noble heroine. And if we don't like Charlotte and don't care what happens to her, there's not much in the play to engage the emotions or provide that uniquely transformative experience of really fine live theater.

Wife is a nice vehicle for showy acting (not to mention a prodigious memory) and actor Damien Atkins is giving it his all. This tall, lanky actor easily morphs in and out of the many accents, silhouettes and moods. But the overall experience of sitting through this play is akin to having someone with a talent for voices read aloud a long feature article from The New Yorker. At the end, you admire the writer's skill and the reader's energy, but you don't feel much of anything about what you've just heard. Wife is a verbal museum piece. Like the characters in Rocky Horror, Charlotte von Mahlsdorf is stuck in a time warp. She just doesn't make you want to get up and dance.

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