Better Than Jefferson?

Surviving the Nazis in pearls and a dowdy dress

| September 13, 2006
Scott Ridley in I Am My Own Wife
Scott Ridley in I Am My Own Wife
- Carrie Cranford

Among US Presidents, it doesn't get much better. Whether you're the Founding Father who wrote the Declaration and hung out in the slave quarters at Monticello or you're that other white-haired dude who wrote a bestseller, married a future US Senator and got it on the side from a White House intern, those Jeffersons are wily, lovable rogues -- in a class all their own.

Occasionally, William Jefferson Clinton yielded the lurid spotlight to his namesake while he was in office as verification of Tom's escapades came to light. So it was only after Bill's two-term limit expired that opportunity knocked for Jefferson Mays on Broadway.

Mays won the 2003 Tony Award by acclamation -- for far more outré sexual exploits in Doug Wright's I Am My Own Wife. It's sort of in the title, isn't it?

The actor portrayed Lothar Berfelde, better known as Charlotte von Mahlsdorf in her transvestite identity. Charlotte not only survived the Nazi regime and the post-war repressions of Communist East Germany, she thrived -- cross-dressing openly -- and established The Gründerzeit Museum.

At ground level, the Museum in Berlin-Malsdorf collected antique furnishings, phonographs and recordings. Underground, as we learn in I Am My Own Wife, Charlotte rescued a gay pub that the German Democratic Republic condemned, reopening the remnants in her cellar as a meeting ground for the gay/transgender community.

"Love and lash were practiced on demand," says Charlotte piquantly in I Am My Own Woman, her tasty autobiography.

But at what price? After the fall of the Berlin Wall and receiving the Ribbon of Merit for service to the German Bundesrepublik, Charlotte was beset with reports that she was a willing, able and productive informant for the Stasi, the GDR's infamous secret police.

Calls for Charlotte to return her ribbon were in the media at precisely the time when Wright was interviewing his subject, getting a grip on her life and trying to complete his play. Mays played a pivotal role at this point, long before the Tony Awards and the Pulitzer Prize showered down on the finished Broadway product.

More than turning in an outstanding performance in 40 different roles -- all while wearing Charlotte's dowdy black dress and pearls -- Mays showed Wright that his story could be done as a one-man show. So in multiple extraordinary ways, Mays deserved the accolades and the Tony.

All I'm saying is that, onstage at Actor's Theatre of Charlotte, Scott Ridley gives a better performance than the original I saw at the Lyceum Theatre in December 2003. Yes, better than Jefferson.

Make no mistake, I shared in the universal admiration for Mays' performance. Treated to Dennis Delamar's perfectly counterpoised direction, aided by outstanding sound design from Chip Decker and exemplary lighting by Hallie Gray, I can now share in the adulation for Wright's script.

By the time I saw Mays, I felt that he may have become overly beguiled by Charlotte's charms and quaint eccentricities. The monster that may have lurked beneath -- largely a consequence of his perilous plight amid pervasive intolerance, brutality and cultural ruin -- seemed to be glossed over or ignored. After all, decades before he may have informed on his fellow sadomasochists, this man murdered his dad with a rolling pin. Not exactly a petunia.

Ridley straddles this duality brilliantly. Sometimes there's a mischievous twinkle in his eyes as he shows us the prized possessions/obsessions of his museum, just slightly tinged with a coquettish shyness. At other times, the seemingly artless candor drifts into a nearly blank, wide-eyed gaze, as if voices or memories are beckoning to him from some haunted, crazed or horrifying realm.

More fundamentally, Ridley does a better job of shuttling back and forth between English and German, a source of chronic vertigo with Mays. Overall, I experienced I Am My Own Wife the second time around with a richer sense of those moments when Wright wished us to feel connected with Charlotte -- and a much sharper sense of those moments when we are meant to realize just how alien Charlotte is to us all, perhaps dangerously deformed at the core.

Ridley isn't nearly as audacious as Mays in rendering Wright's homosexual flamboyance. And yes, the playwright's quest to understand Charlotte and frame her story of courage for the stage is a storyline in I Am My Own Wife that's nearly as important as Charlotte's own odyssey.

While most would probably miss these comical jolts from Wright's appearances as a character in his own play, I occasionally found Mays' bravura slightly jarring. Slowing down the mad pacing just a tad also helps us navigate the labyrinthine moral ambiguities of Charlotte's life.

One last big plus on E. Stonewall Street is the intimacy of the Actor's Theatre stage vis-à-vis the Lyceum, with just enough bric-a-brac in Decker's veiled set to establish the mood. A triumph for the entire ATC team but especially for Ridley and Delamar.

Don't miss this one.

From Charlotte's indomitable spirit and the weightiness of her preservationist mission, you'd think it would be a descent to the vanity, the cattiness and shameless inconsequence of Laurie Riffe's one-woman performance in Bad Dates. Actually, it's an ascent to the fifth floor of 1315 East condominiums -- and a fairly long circuitous walk to Unit 537 when you exit the elevator.

Tickets to this ultra-intimate Collaborative Arts production entitle theatergoers to dip into a modest spread of finger foods -- plus the beverage cooler -- before Riffe arrives as Haley Walker. Considering that Collaborative has previously delivered an outstanding outdoors Midsummer Night's Dream as a freebie on the Green, we cannot be surprised by its generosity.

Very likely, if you do snag one of the 50 seats to each of these unique living room events, you'll find yourself feeling more like a casual guest than a serious arts patron. That's very much the environmental point as Haley splits her attention between her two closest confidants, the audience and a full-length mirror.

She's been through one marriage and seems to have a tenuous handle on motherhood as she begins her plunge back into the dating jungle. Nervous and giddy in front of the mirror. Soliciting approval from her 12-year-old on her wardrobe choices.

It's tricky terrain, skillfully littered with surprises, comical catastrophes and the odd heartbreak by playwright Theresa Rebeck. Second-hand we go through Haley's tribulations with a gay freeloading Columbia law prof, a drip with a bad colon, a Lothario who looks too much like the cad who tormented Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce and multiple Buddhist bug epiphanies.

Collaborative founder Elise Wilkinson directs with all the resourcefulness you'd expect from someone who dreamt up this dishy production concept, and Riffe takes exactly the right tack with Haley. Lascivious, gossipy, poised and vulnerable.

Rebeck returns as co-author of more substantial fare when Carolina Actors Studio Theatre presents the 9/11-themed Omnium Gatherum later this season. Bad Dates will make you hungry for more.

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