Michael Gotch walks humbly onto the stage in full, modest costume to a set of disembodied doors at center stage. He opens them, smiles and closes them. Then he walks offstage again. Not a word is spoken, but there is such an unforgettably subtle mystery in his movements that his actions serve as clever introduction to the Milwaukee Rep's production of I Am My Own Wife. Running now through Oct. 5 at the Stiemke Theater, the show features Gotch in a dizzying array of roles written by Doug Wright. It's the incredible story of Charlotte von Mahlsdorf-a transvestite in Germany who lived through both Nazi and Communist rule.
The story of Charlotte's life fades onto the stage in much the same way Gotch fades into her character. You can see his features gently embracing her as he addresses the audience. The true story of a woman who spent her life in the body of a man during some pretty oppressive regimes is interesting to say the least. Gotch brings the story vividly to life with portrayals of characters that all manage some degree of depth even though many of them only appear briefly. While there is comedy in this story, it is overwhelmingly dramatic. There is no comic costume quick-change here and Gotch carries more than enough gravitas to keep the serious moments very serious, even when the rapid change in drastically different characters would have a tendency for comedy. Gotch handles the pacing extremely well, aided considerably by the production.
Josh Schmidt's sound design adds to the flow of moods across the stage, whether it's pounding-out a deafening dance beat or settling down into a meaningful hush. The set is also quite impressive, though much of it does not become visible until just before intermission. Much like Charlotte herself, there is much more to the story than it will divulge on its own. In this breathtakingly ambiguous, expertly delivered story it is left to the audience to decide how much of it is truly credible.