Arts » Performing Arts

Ripley – believe it!

Plus, tango the night away



What did Actor's Theatre have to do when it agreed to move its 2006 CL Show of the Year, I Am My Own Wife, from its original home on Stonewall Street to Booth Playhouse for an encore engagement presented by the Blumenthal PAC? Add bric-a-brac. Lots of it.

Doug Wright's painstakingly researched script is predominantly set at the home of Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, "Berlin's most distinguished transvestite," as she modestly called herself in her autobiography. Aside from serving as a meeting place for gays, lesbians and the variously transgendered of East Berlin during the Cold War, Charlotte's home was The Gründerzeit Museum, a sanctuary for antique furniture, clocks, gramophones, thousands of ancient shellacs and 78s, and multitudinous curios assembled during a lifetime of enlightened scavenging.

Scott Ripley plays Von Mahlsdorf and a multinational cast of more than 30 other characters, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning Wright. So the wider, taller, deeper Booth looks barer than the funky stage at 615 E. Stonewall. Ace director Dennis Delamar and set designer Chip Decker have made the faux Museum taller -- with more suspended old chairs and quaint gramophones floating above Charlotte. Believe it or not, the alterations make the PAC's transplant look more like the 2003 Broadway production than the 2006 Actor's Theatre effort. Ripley, of course, looks exactly the same: clean shaven, no visible makeup, austere black dress with matching kerchief, and his string of pearls.

The makeover is in Ripley's performance, not radical but definite. It begins with Charlotte, of course. But the new serenity infused into the eccentric museum curator radiates outward, subtly shifting the balance between her and the other characters, and maybe changing how you feel about Charlotte -- and Doug Wright.

What Ripley brought to the table two years ago was a corrective balance to the Broadway charmer, Jefferson Mays. Along the path to survival through the Nazi and Communist regimes, Charlotte, nèe Lothar, killed his father, and betrayed a business partner to the Stasi, who listed Von Mahlsdorf as one of their informers. Ripley didn't gloss or sugar over those deeds two years ago, enabling us to see Charlotte as deformed by the grimmest of circumstances.

Now I believe Ripley has seen Charlotte as a woman who has seen into and forgiven herself, one who has earned our forgiveness. Part of the relaxation in this part of Ripley's performance is his willingness to let us make the call. It's hard to know where relaxation ends and added confidence begins in describing how Ripley integrates the other characters into his vivid storytelling.

He changes from one to another more swiftly and effortlessly now. More importantly, they're all more sharply individualized -- yet less exaggerated. Wright, in particular, is still gay but not flamingly so. Talk show host Ziggy Fluss is hilarious yet nuanced. So Ripley's bravura is no less evident than it was before, but now it's out of the way of Wright's overarching argument.

We get that now, when all the conflicting evidence is in and Wright, wondering what to conclude, recalls Charlotte's answer to a question in one of many taped interviews. "What do you do with items in your museum that break and are no longer perfect?" Charlotte's answer -- veiled, simple and principled -- emerges like a last testament. Just as Wright intended it should.

Couples gazed intently into each other's eyes. Their arms flailed, their legs kicked spasmodically and intertwined, with their bodies pressed tightly together. No, this wasn't love -- or even sex. This was far more serious: This was the tango! For two nights last week, overamped bandoneons -- slinky Argentine accordions -- turned Belk Theater into a den of the black art as Forever Tango cast its sensuous spell.

Instrumental interludes punctuated the rhythmic coiling of the couples, and a pair of group tableaux framed it. But what we hungered for were the spotlit tango partners, each pair showcasing a different chemistry and duende. Here was an imperious macho arrogance that could only be attained through years of hard practice and an industrial-strength athletic supporter.

Julio Altez had this thuggish thing going with Carolina Garcia. Horns almost sprouted out of the forehead of Carlos Vera as he advanced bullishly upon Laura Mercairie, a Lilith-like temptress straight from Hell. And it was impossible to determine whether Leonardo Barrionuevo or Alejandra Gutty was suffering more exquisite anguish as they melted over and over into each other. Olè!

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