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Thursday, Sept. 4, 2008

Man of Many Faces

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  "Even Shakespeare gave the guy playing King Lear a 20-minute break," says actor Michael Gotch, who is embracing a challenging lead role with the Milwaukee Rep. When the Rep's Stiemke Theater opens the season with I Am My Own Wife on Sept. 10, Gotch won't be given the luxury of anytime offstage. The show features more than 30 characters-and Gotch is the only actor in the production.

  Conceived by playwright Doug Wright as a one-man show, I Am My Own Wife is an acclaimed drama based on the remarkable true story of German transvestite Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, a resilient individual who survived the brutality of World War II and the Third Reich.

  In the Rep production, Gotch will portray Charlotte, the playwright and a world of other characters. Bringing a full cast to life in a serious, two-hour drama will be a harrowing challenge: Every word of this 80-page text has to breathe through one actor. Gotch says he started by memorizing the entire script, before moving on to dialect and characterization. Along the way, Gotch has received input from the show's director, John Langs.

  "He lets me know when I'm on the right track and helps me come up with solutions to problems that I'm not able to solve myself in some scenes," Gotch says.

  Over the past few years, Gotch has registered a number of memorable performances with Milwaukee Shakespeare and the American Players Theatre. He displays a magnetic charm and an ability to extract subtle intricacies from his characters. That should help in I Am My Own Wife, as the trick is to prevent the characters from turning into flat stereotypes. Gotch is aided by the fact that the center of the story consists of seven main roles, while the other characters have smaller parts.

  "They come and they go, sometimes with only one line of dialogue, so they're a bit easier," Gotch says. "It's almost impossible to create a fully fleshed-out voice and history for someone who only says, 'You can't go in there,' and then isn't in the play anymore."

  Gotch may be the only actor, but with a full technical crew, he'll hardly be alone in the production. As the only person onstage, however, he jokes about his inability to get along with all of the characters. "We have a few divas in the cast that I don't like to work with at the moment," he says. "A couple of characters haven't shown up for work yet, either. Unreliable, sleep late, aren't prepared-so we may be replacing a few before we open. I'm not going to name names, because I don't think they know it yet."

  The Rep's production of I Am My Own Wife runs Sept. 10 through Oct. 5 at the Stiemke Theater.