The first thing an audience member of I Am My Own Wife is greeted with when they reach the RePOP Vintage Furnishings antiques store in Williamsburg is a program and instructions to wait at the bar next door. It isn’t long, however, before the sold–out crowd of no more than 20 people is ushered back in to RePOP and told to sit wherever they like.
The windows appear as intricate red and blue stained glass from the consistently flashing fire truck lights at the station across the street. Nearly every chair is different, and nearly every object has a tag proving it’s still for sale during RePOP business hours. The reason each audience member can sit wherever he or she likes, the ushers assure everyone, is that the play is everywhere. The results are some people sitting around a coffee table in the middle, with haphazard semi–circle rows rippling out towards the walls.
In the introduction to the show, the audience learns that Two Turns Theatre Company and playwright Doug Wright had always wanted to do the show in an actual antique store. It’s obvious why just minutes into the first act, because most of the writing revolves around antiques and metaphors that flow from antiques, and sitting in antique chairs surrounded by antique lights and wall hangings and the slightly musty smell of very old objects easily puts the audience back into the scene of the characters.
And characters, in the case of I Am My Own Wife, relates to just one actor. Vince Gatton’s cast description is “Charlotte, Doug, et al.,” because he plays upwards of 10 different characters throughout the show. He is Charlotte, a German transvestite and the main character, Doug, a gay American working on telling Charlotte’s history, or a general, TV host, journalist, prisoner, and any number of others.
Writing as brilliant as Wright’s needs strong representation. No matter how ingenious a script is it can fall on its face without a capable cast. Gatton is that capable cast. He somehow has conversations with himself as different people without coming off as having multiple personality disorder. At one point in the show he is Charlotte as well as a Parisian journalist, a San Franciscan journalist, a New York journalist, and a German journalist all-interacting with each other at once. He has the timing of actors who have spent every second together, but the timing comes solely from him.
Gatton makes the story come alive. When first hearing the play is about a transvestite in Nazi and communist Germany, it may be hard to understand how I Am My Own Wife could be relatable to the average theater fan. The themes, however, are so much more. It’s about humanity, coping with hardship and accepting people even if they are misunderstood.
Gatton seamlessly connects little vignettes with mastered voice impersonations and physical tics. Wright’s characters capture the zeitgeist of each period they belong in, which is no small feat since the timeline of the play spans from the early 1900s to the early 1990s.
I Am My Own Wife won, among others, the Tony Award for Best Play and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2004. Wright wrote the script based on his conversations with the actual Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, and it is more than clear why in this antique store version.
I Am My Own Wife runs until Oct. 4 in RePOP Vintage Furnishings