In Tootsie, Michael Roberts (Dustin Hoffman), who masquerades as a woman, says he was more of a man as a woman than he ever had been as a man. When an actor plays a man in a dress, it can bring about epiphanies. In Doug Wright's Pulitzer- and Tony-winning solo drama I Am My Own Wife, actor Jefferson Mays plays the late German antique dealer Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, a real-life transvestite. This affords Mays a wonderful acting challenge—yet this is only a mere slice off the many demands of this role. The actor, who earned a Lead Performance Tony in this play, tackles almost 40 additional characters in relating the story of Mahlsdorf's colorful life and her survival under the Nazis and Communists. (Mahlsdorf, who died in 2002, always preferred to be called "she," and the creative team for this play respects those wishes.)
I Am My Own Wife, which begins its Southern California premiere in Brentwood this week, was a long-germinating labor of love for Wright (Quills). He decided to pursue this project in the early 1990s and met with Mahlsdorf in her Berlin home in 1992 and 1993. Yet the first concrete work occurred in 2000, among the creative triumvirate of Mays, Wright, and renowned director-writer Moisés Kaufman (The Laramie Project).
Mays, who has amassed many Off-Broadway and regional theatre credits, honed his craft under teacher Anne Bogart and her SITI Company in San Diego. A Connecticut native, he met Bogart while he was in the graduate program at UCSD following his graduation from Yale University. Bogart introduced Mays to the techniques of Japanese director Tadashi Suzuki. Mays describes this discipline: "It really cracked my head open. I had the good fortune of going to Japan and training with the actual Suzuki company, and that was the first time I saw the sort of superhuman abilities that actors can exhibit. It's demeaning, I think, to call these techniques exercises, because doing them is transformational. I can always spot actors who have this training. There's something very strong, focused, and energized about them, yet very still. The style, developed in the 1970s, draws from all sorts of theatre and dance forms from around the world—from Martha Graham to African dance to Noh and Kabuki theatre. Suzuki taught what he called the grammar of the feet. It has to do with how the feet come in contact to the ground and informs the rest of the body."
Mays' years of extensive training and subsequent years of practical onstage experience have taken him through diverse creative journeys. He says he has been called upon to play multiple characters within one piece on a few occasions, adding, "This kind of acting task is great fun, requiring real transformation." He says the most daunting character he tackled in the piece was that of Wright, who ended up writing himself into the play, because the piece—among its complex thematic layers—deals with the creation of the play itself. Mays says, "No. 1, he is a friend, and I've never done an imitation of him before. It seemed a bit nightmarish at first, as he courageously and perhaps masochistically encouraged me toward gross caricature. I then pulled back from that as we worked on it further. It was interesting for all of us to work out Doug's path through the story."
He speaks of steps he took in creating this character: "I hadn't done much research to begin with. I came in cold when we started. A lot of moments that exist in the play were arrived at in a knee-jerk sort of way." Mays never met Mahlsdorf; he had planned to visit her in Sweden, where she had relocated, but she died before he had the opportunity. He admits, "I did have mixed feelings about meeting her. It would of course have been a dream to do so, but there's also value in having a sort of aesthetic distance from your subject. And as the text of the play says, sometimes nothing is more paralyzing than the truth.
"I've never played a real human being before," Mays continues. "And so I had a real sense of responsibility. The most valuable thing I did in preparing for it was listening to the hours and hours of interviews that Doug had conducted. You can learn so much from a person by listening to [his or her] voice in trying to replicate and evoke it. It changes your own body when you do that. This really informed my whole interpretation. I had never really seen her. I had viewed visual images here and there, but people have told me that I walk and move like her."
Mays acknowledges that it's too much of a simplification to categorize this multilevel play as a biography, though most of the text is drawn from Wright's interviews with Mahlsdorf. Says Mays, "From the outset Moisés said, 'Let's not worry about writing a play, with a beginning, a middle, and an end. Let's put stage-worthy theatrical fragments out there, and bring them together like a mosaic.'" Mays adds he was surprised at the degree of success for this atypical Broadway play but not surprised that it succeeded: "Doug compares the audience's experience in watching the play to the actual tours she conducted in her [antique] museums. People of all sorts would line up there on a Sunday morning. You would find East German citizens, Bavarian hausfraus with their reluctant husbands in tow, and many other diverse individuals. Her character appeals to a wide range of people. In New York, I think she found favor with matinee ladies, those who would have loved to sit down with her for a cup of coffee."
Mays is continuing with U.S. and overseas tours for a good while longer, and he then will consider other career opportunities. He says he is grateful to resident theatres for giving him the chance to do many fine roles and to help him grow as an actor. He explains, "So much great work happens there. It blooms like little mountain flowers behind boulders, unseen by many people. I think it's the only place where unknown actors can stretch their talents and assail monster roles that you wouldn't be able to play in New York without a sitcom under your belt. You can really get your chops in shape in the resident theatres, and I urge anyone to investigate them and to be willing to go anywhere to pursue the great roles." Looking ahead, he says he would enjoy extending his experience to films and television. "I want to have a shot at all of it, though I do love the stage so much," he says. "It's such a rare and rewarding thing to be in control of space and time for two hours a night, to go through a journey and take the audience along. There's nothing quite like it."
"I Am My Own Wife" will be presented by the Geffen Playhouse at the Wadsworth Theatre, 11301 Wilshire Blvd., Bldg. 228, Brentwood. Tue.-Thu. 7:30 p.m., Fri. 8 p.m., Sat. 4 & 8:30 p.m., Sun. 2 & 7 p.m. Jun. 15-Jul. 10. $34-85. (310) 208-6500, ext. 144.