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Stephen Ouimette in <i>I Am My Own Wife</i>. Photo: Andrée Lanthier
Stephen Ouimette in I Am My Own Wife. Photo: Andrée Lanthier

Theatre Review: I Am My Own Wife at the NAC in Ottawa

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The award-winning play I Am My Own Wife runs on the Main Stage at the NAC in Ottawa through January 28. Resident theatre critic Connie Meng was at the opening night and has our review.

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Connie Meng
Theatre Critic

The Canadian premiere of I AM MY OWN WIFE by Doug Wright is a co-production of the NAC and CanStage and frankly it knocked my socks off.  The play won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the Tony Award in 2004.  It tells the life story of East German transvestite Charlotte von Mahlsdorf.  Born Lothar Berfelde in 1928, she lived almost her entire life as a woman and managed to survive both the Nazi and Communist regimes. 

A compulsive collector, she saved a remarkable number of Weimar remnants - artifacts, antiques, even an entire cabaret - and turned her home into a museum.  After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the German government recognized her preservation efforts with a prestigious medal. However her Stasi file implicated her as a collaborator, which tarnished her status as a cultural icon.  Playwright Wright first met Charlotte in the early 1990s.  From his transcripts of conversations and various other sources he fashioned his one man play, whose 35 characters depict the life of this complex human being and her friends, acquaintances and enemies.

I AM MY OWN WIFE is a tour de force for Stratford veteran Steven Ouimette, the sole performer.  He appears as a man in a simple black dress and pearls worn over black slacks and boots.  Without make-up and using only subtle changes in body language, accents and facial expressions, Mr. Ouimette conveys each character with believability and clarity.  For the audience there's never a moment of doubt or confusion.  This is a powerful performance by one of Canada's most respected and versatile actors.

The set and props designed by Hisham Ali are a perfect framework for the play.  The room seems to be made of vertical wooden panels which are actually scrim through which we see at times the various other rooms and contents of Charlotte's museum.  Louise Guinand's effective lighting highlights the action and Susan Benson's costuming is simple and flexible.  Laura Burton's music and John Lott's sound are both very good and make a subtle contribution to the production.

Director Robin Phillips, former Artistic Director of the Stratford Festival, has done a splendid job with this unique and complex play.  Together he and Mr. Ouimette have brought the eccentric and enigmatic Charlotte and her story to life.

Unfortunately Charlotte died in 2002, before the play was performed.  However the character will endure because, to quote the playwright, ". . . Charlotte is larger than life.  She reaches beyond the particulars of her time, place and idiosyncratic nature to embody lasting truths."  This is a play and a performance not to be missed.

On a scale of one to five the NAC/CanStage production of I AM MY OWN WIFE gets five Royal Canadian Mounted Police, horses and all.  For North Country Public Radio I'm Connie Meng.   

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