I've decided to stop writing reviews of the theatre I see. Milwaukee's theatre community doesn't seem to be mature enough for honest criticism, but the show I saw last weekend was such a good example of a potentially great story being compromised by the prevailing norms of America's failing theatre institutions that I can't pass on this opportunity for analysis.
I am talking about "I am My Own Wife" at the Milwaukee Rep. So many people have recommended this show as this season's "if you see anything at the rep, make it this one" show. The first red flag that I may have been misdirected came when i saw that the playwright, Doug Wright had also written "Quills" a film that i thought managed to make the Marquis de Sade boring. Most of my problems are with the script. Wright makes three choices that turn a compelling character and situation into something banal enough to succeed in the current theatre environment.
First, he reduces some of the most complex situations in modern history to a simple personality drama. A play that could have been about East Germany is instead about a celebrity scandal surrounding Charlotte von Mahlsdorf and her furniture. The play even climaxes on a television talk show. Wright's American perspective, his unthinking commitment to anti-authoritarianism causes him to see this period in simple black and white, and he misses many interesting questions (questions that can be turned back on us in America today). What is it like to live under an idealistically ambitious, but deeply flawed regime? What kind of compromises does such a life demand? Instead, Wright quit writing the play when, after reading his subject's Stasi file he discovered that Charlotte had made such compromises.
This brings us to the second flaw in the script. After six years, Wright resumed work on the play with the tactic of writing himself in so his own struggle with Charlotte's integrity could take center stage. This decision allows him to write emotional lines like "I need to believe in her story, I need to believe that someone can survive in a life like hers" (paraphrased from my memory) but, in doing so it robs the audience of an opportunity to encounter that struggle ourselves. Rather than watching the contradictory facts of von Mahlsdorf's life unfold and engaging our critical capacities to understand this character, we're allowed to passively watch Doug Wright vacillate on stage.
Or, an actor playing Doug Wright, that is. The same actor who plays Charlotte von Malhsdorf and some 40 other roles. Which is the third flaw with this script. I can't find any compelling creative reason that Charlotte's story (or actually Doug's story) is best told by one actor playing all the roles. It could be argued that this choice mirrors the many lives Charlotte herself played in life, or that somehow the transvestite themes are aided by all the characters (mostly male) being played by a man in a dress. Actually, my experience is the opposite. Having one actor play all the roles dulls any edge that transvestism might have. Every time the actor switches character we are reminded that this person is onstage and wearing a costume. The potentially transgressive image of a man in a dress is constantly replaced by the perfectly acceptable even traditional image of an actor cross-dressing for his role.
I believe these decisions are motivated by economy not creativity. Wright secured the financial success and marketability of his play when he decided to make it a one man historical biopic.
When economic necessity leads a theatre artist to write, perform and otherwise create a solo show because the show is self produced and rehearsal time is shared with a day job, a job whose vacation time is spent taking the play from fringe festival to fringe festival, then the one man show is a testament to that artist's dedication to his work. When a one man play is clamoured after by large cost-cutting mismanaged regional theatres it looks a lot more like exploitation.
When politically charged content like Nazism, Communism, East-West relations and transsexual identity are replaced by a historical biography of a "greatest generation" figure, it looks a lot like pandering to the aging population of traditional theatre patrons.
When a playwright puts a character, himself even, on stage as a tool for talking about themes rather than simply portraying them, he's lazily spoonfeeding an audience he assumes is to unsophisticated or inattentive to critically engage with the characters.
Producing "I am My Own Wife" chases theatre's aging audience when what we need to do is lead or even drag new audiences into the theatre medium.
So, here again, like Endgame and Gilbert and George, we have Milwaukee's artistic establishments paying lip service to presenting politically relevant, challenging or potentially controversial work. The Rep also makes a number of design and direction decisions that exacerbate my problems with this play. Michael Gotch's performance in the show is encumbered by unnecessary sound and light cues for his character transformations. He is certainly well trained and talented enough that his voice and body alone embody the diverse array of characters for all but the most deaf and nearsighted of audience members. The light cues are like making him carry a crutch he doesn't need. The Rep also throws literally hundreds of superfluous props at the show. I must admit their production looks modest compared with the pictures from Broadway, and the props are likely in the script, but that doesn't make them any less useless. I guess a play that requires only one actor but allows the company to fill the stage with half their prop storage is just about perfect for our declining theatre world.
5 days ago