Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Play: I am Nonplussed

I Am My Own Wife by Doug Wright, Directed by Jerry Manning, Seattle Rep, through March 4, 2012

Did you know that nonplussed means both to be surprised and confused AND being undisturbed and unimpressed? Such are the vagaries of the English language, but I had to look it up, because the latter definition, not the former, pretty much sums up my reaction to this latest one-person-offering from the Rep.

It is not a terrible play - it won a Pulitzer and garnered a lot of good press. And it has an iron-clad elevator pitch. It is the real-life story of Charlotte von Mahldorf, born Lothar Berfelde, a German transvestite and collector of antiques, who survived both Nazi and communist regimes and ran a little museum dedicated to the Gr├╝nderzeit furnishings (early industrial era Germany - literally "Founder Epoch") while wearing women's dresses. She is "discovered" after the wall falls and made a big thing of. Then the holes show up in her story - she was an informer for the Stasi (East German secret police) and may not be the noble soul of her own tales. And the playwright researching her story is caught in the middle between the old woman's memories and contravening facts.

Sounds good. But as a play it sort of cheats in the whole resolution thing, leaving things up in the air in a you-decide sort of moment. That's not bad, but the play really stacks the deck - Charlotte is charming and sweet and her recollections are dramatized as fact. Her accusations are in the form of documentation and reports (which do not agree with each other), and her accusers as facile, over-the-top, frenzied media types. The writer also leaves us with an admission that Charlotte's is an improbable story, but offers an improbable photograph of Charlotte's youth as a hint that it may be real.

The writer is injected into this, in a way, as padding for and protection for Charlotte - he has sacrificed for his story, spent bucks to interview her in Germany, and then is confronted with the possible untruthfulness of his primary source. You want him to be OK, not to have wasted his time, not to have chased this story down a rabbit hole. Charlotte, for her part, remains intact and unchallenged to a great degree, the little old lady a the heart of this hurricane.

The language of the play is a bit of a barrier, and not just the frequent dipping into German.  More challenging is the ripping through of various types of phonographs or styles of furniture. Laundry lists of such descriptions. Such lists have the danger of pitching into a "Dictionary joke" (think of the "Dead Parrot Sketch" from Monty Python - a listing of all the synonyms for "dead'). You have to bring the love of a true advocate of the subject to such lines to pull them off and to be truly interested in order to maintain the flow as a listener. 

Rep Veteran Nick Garrison is the sole actor on the stage, morphing between parts and in many places challenged by the fact he is portraying, say, a Midwestern editor while still dressed up as a German hausfrau. It is good enough, but pales in part because in the other theater How to Write a New Book for The Bible is doing it so much more seamlessly. For the matinee, Garrison rolled a couple of his lines - starting them and then having to seize control once the sentence was already in process. It is like watching a trained gymnast making a difficult landing with a stumble, and is the danger of one-person shows - there is no one else on stage to rescue you.

Where does that leave me? Non-plussed, in that undisturbed definition. Disimpassioned. Unruffled. Imperturbed. Cool but not chilled.  Generally unflapped.  Charlotte's story was filled with potential peril but ended with her as a sphinx-like mystery at the heart of her turn-of-the-last century museum. We're left with questions, but they neither burn nor demand answers. And in that the story is over, and nothing is really known. It is one more tchotchke in the box.

More later,