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I Am My Own Wife at the National Theatre in the District
By Lisa Traiger

Lisa Traiger has been writing about theater and dance since 1985. Currently she contributes a weekly dance column to The Washington Post Weekend section. Her pieces on the cultural and performing arts appear regularly in the Washington Jewish Week and DanceViewTimes.com. She has also written for Moment magazine, Stagebill, Sondheim Review, Asian Week, the Boston Jewish Advocate, the Atlanta Jewish Times, Intermission and the Washington Review. A recipient of two Simon Rockower Awards for Excellence in Arts Criticism from the American Jewish Press Association, she recently earned an M.F.A. in choreography from the University of Maryland, College Park. In 2003, Ms. Traiger was a New York Times Fellow in the Institute for Dance Criticism at the American Dance Festival, Durham, N.C. e-mail : lisatraiger@aol.com  

It took a little black dress to overcome playwright Doug Wright's writer's block.
He couldn't get beyond the problems he saw in his subject until his friend, theater director Moises Kaufman, showed up at rehearsal wearing a dress.

Here's how Kaufman recalls it: "I used this theater technique É in which we bring in a theatrical object, a prop, a costume, a light, or some music, to create a theatrical moment with the material. É And I brought a dress because I was really interested in the idea of a man in a dress.

"But when Doug or [actor] Jefferson Mays tell the story, they say I was wearing boxer shorts."

Kaufman cheekily protests: "I don't wear boxers. It's very upsetting that I didn't make such a lasting impression on them with what I was wearing."

But that little black dress turned out to be the ignition and essence of I Am My Own Wife, Wright's 2004 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama, (at the National Theatre through April 10. )

So, what's a nice Jewish boy doing wearing a black dress? For Kaufman, any glancing indignity he may have felt was overridden by the purposeful artistic pursuit he and his colleagues found.

Among his previous works, The Laramie Project examined the aftermath of a Wyoming community following the gay-bashing murder of Matthew Shepherd in 1998, and Gross Indecency explored the sodomy trials of Victorian-era playwright Oscar Wilde.

Kaufman notes that the dress led to the deeper examination of the unusual life of Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, the German transvestite who survived both the Nazi regime and its successor repressive communist era.

The subject of Wright's drama, I Am My Own Wife, she is among the most enigmatic characters to have a foray on a Broadway stage in recent seasons. Born in 1928, the son of a kind-hearted mother and a tyrannical father, Charlotte came to be known as the mother of gay German liberation.

But her true-life tale -- part pulp fiction, part unsolved mystery, part martyrdom -- is stranger than fiction. Actor Jefferson James, who won a Tony for his portrayal, channels Charlotte and 40 other characters in this performance.

Wright based his story on hours of interviews he conducted with von Mahlsdorf over several years, before discovering that even in her black dress and pearls, this larger than life character was not exactly what she seemed.

Although Charlotte, who died just three years ago, was not Jewish, director Kaufman believes that her story is emblematic of the Jewish experience in repressive regimes, both in light of her outsider status as a transvestite as well as her commitment to secretly preserving Jewish cultural artifacts during Adolf Hitler's reign.

Charlotte preserved thousands of Jewish records by pasting false labels on them, to keep them from being confiscated by the Nazis.

"One of the things that attracted me to the play," Kaufman said last week from his office at Tectonic Theatre Project in New York, "was this question of how are we persecuted. Charlotte is a person who survived the Nazis and the Russians É in a dress."

In working with actor Mays to develop von Mahlsdorf's stage persona, Kaufman was surprised to rediscover his own buried Jewish memories.

"As I was growing up, my father and my grandmother would talk in German, their mother tongue, when they wanted to say something that they didn't want me to understand. When I was in the room in watching rehearsals and heard [the character of] Charlotte talk in German, I heard my grandmother."

Born in Caracas, Venezuela, to European refugee parents, Kaufman was destined to go into his father's food wholesaling business, until he discovered experimental theater.

A former yeshiva student, he studied business administration at the Metropolitan University in Caracas, before abandoning spreadsheets for stage lights.

"My parents were Orthodox," he says, "Very observant. My dad is from Romania and barely survived the Holocaust. He came to Venezuela without a cent. My mother was born in Venezuela, but her parents were from the Ukraine."

"This is the first play I was involved in that delved into that part of my history," he said. "And what I found very interesting was that it was second nature. Though I had never done anything about the Holocaust, I realized I knew all about it. I knew about the period. I knew about how they felt. And this from a Jewish boy who grew up in Venezuela."

I Am My Own Wife received a pair of Tony Awards and a slew of other accolades; it has been lauded for Wright's script, for Kaufman's direction and for Mays' performance.

Following this national tour, which includes stops in Boston and San Francisco, the production travels back to its European roots, to Krakow, Poland, something Kaufman couldn't have imagined the day he donned that black dress.

For Kaufman, theater is foremost about exploring new ideas in a collaborative and rigorous artistic exchange. If the work doesn't inspire, doesn't elicit questions, doesn't spark heated debate, it doesn't interest him.

In Mahlsdorf, Kaufman found a perfect subject: Charlotte's life sparks as many questions as answers.

"When you go to the Holocaust Museum in Washington," he said, "before you leave, it says, 'Never again.' We have a moral responsibility to make sure that 'Never again' doesn't only mean never again for Jews in Germany. It means never again, period. For what happened in Rwanda, for discrimination against homosexuals, for discrimination against African Americans."

He says with finality, "Never again is never again."

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