A Difficult Good-Bye
Its been nearly 4 weeks since this show closed. Tonight just for the heck of it, I started running my lines for Act I, the biggest and longest speeches, to see how far I could get. Turns out, about 99% of my words are still intact What a surprise!
Typically I'm eager to wrap-up a project and move on to the next. Once the exciting discoveries and creativity of rehearsals are long past, and the role has played out in front of various audiences, there seems little left to explore. But not this time. Whether its the significance this part holds in my career, or perhaps its the part itself, I have never felt anything but humble before this work. It always held more than I could possibly encompass. More nuances to tease out, transform into art, and master in performance. An endless bounty for which I must thank the genius of playwright Doug Wright. And perhaps also the real-life Charlotte Von Mahlsdorf herself. who like many trans people, remains a mystery wrapped in a puzzle inside an enigma even long after her death.
I would dearly love to have another chance at Charlotte. On stage Charlotte will forever be 65 years old and I am a mere whippersnapper of 60. I suspect that the play's themes and settings will only become more relevant as America proceeds into the next four dangerous years. So hers is a necessary story, and I have much more to learn from it and from her. Whether fortune grants me another shot this play, or not, I will be ready.
But now its another year, and another acting assignment lies before me. So the page on this production must be turned. So one final glance back, to document and to take stock of that rich, wonderful experience.
Assessing the Performance
No matter how connected an actor feels to a given role, what really matters is whether the audience received and was moved by your work. Fortunately, my feedback from audience members has been largely positive. The technical challenges of Charlotte's voice seemed to succeed - her German accent, rather eccentric speech pattern, and her distinctive method for approximating a feminine sound with standard male vocal anatomy. Physically, appearing and moving like a 65 year old was all too easy. Indeed on most days I'd say Charlotte was more spry than I felt, especially once the cold weather came on!
In this play as in life, Charlotte is a consumate story teller. Especially in Act I, she recounts many major life from her childhood in the 1930s up through scenes between her and the playwright, Doug, in the 1990s. Some of these tales are harrowing, others quite comical, and nearly all are subject to a certain mystery, because they cannot be corroborated as fact and were carefully edited by Charlotte over the years, often to cast her actions in a more positive light.
My greatest challenge was to find just the right balance between "telling" and "showing". Some of her stories were fully acted out, with other actors assuming key roles and Charlotte re-experiencing the action almost as it originally played out. Other stories were largely narrative, told from a certain remove afforded by time and retrospection. Most tales were a maddening combination of both, sometimes demanding both telling and showing in a single line!
Meeting this challenge was actually helped along by the fact that director Andrew Volkoff and I often started from different perspectives. I was always eager to throw myself into the emotional immediacy of a scene, to immerse Charlotte in the pain, disappointment, surprise, and danger of each moment she described. Andrew generally favored a more distanced approach, so our audience would be aware of Charlotte's story telling, rather than actually being transported back in time and re-living it realtime with her.
I came to discover that we were both right, in a sense, and a synthesis of approach was quite desirable. Afer all, this is a play about Truth, and how it can be so maleable depending on the motives and perspective of who is telling the story. But its also a play about the life-changing experiences of a transgender person, who lived through difficult circumstances I strongly related to, so I needed the veracity and power of Charlotte's life to be on that stage. And I think it was, if not how I'd originally pictured it, but more in the way that one communicates significance through the act of storytelling itelf, as one gets swept up in the very telling, and inevitably re-processes past events into something larger or smaller than they probably seemed at the time. In their variety and scope these stories were written to be a real roller-coaster ride for the audiences, and I think we gave them their due.
Would I do anything differently, or better? Oh, certainly. Now and then I have little "aha moments", which is true of any performance. From the luxury of this vantage point, I found that being more connected to my fellow players, especially in those early performances, would have improved my work. This was a particular challenge with Charlotte. All those lines to recall. The constant distraction of the directly addressing the audience. And Charlotte's tendency to set herself a bit apart from other characters, and retreat into her head. But inevitably, I found that everything improved once I could let go, and listen, react, and flow with the story rather than constantly whipping it along like some unruly beast. A valuable lesson.
Assessing the Multi-Actor Concept
"I Am My Own Wife" was written for one actor. I've already explained elsewhere why multiple-actors made more sense for my approach, and how my director accepted this challenge whole-heartedly. But most critics and many audience members brought very fond memories of Jefferson May's brilliant solo performance into the theatre with them, and could not help but view our work through that lens. While still confident it was a good call, I felt a sense of responsibility for the show's overall success that an actor rarely assumes. After all, if it wasn't for me, we wouldn't even be doing it this way. So was having more actors an asset, or was it a detraction.
Certainly the director and cast would find various bits and pieces that needed to be "translated" into our mutli-actor format. The play is crafted so perfectly for solo performance, such interpretation was inevitable. But it needed to happen without changing a single word of dialogue or piece of scripted action. That was our agreement with the playwright. So if the character of Doug, a recurring presence throughout Act I, ends up sitting onstage with no words for a long, long time, that's what we deal with. If Charlotte describes a certain action in meticulous detail even though we have another actor in plain sight acting it out, we make that work, too.
And I think it worked. One recurring comment from audiences and some critics was how the details of the story were much clearer in our staging. Partly because you can actually see persons only alluded to in the solo version. The two lead characters Doug and Charlotte never morph into anyone else but are a constant presence onstage, so you can better observe their development, their progress. And character relationships benefitted from having two human beings listening, looking and reacting to each other, realtime, creating a spark together in the moment. That's virtually impossible for one performer to pull off, no matter how gifted. So our "Wife" was received less as an exercise in one actor's virtuosity than about an intricate story and its very complicated characters -- as I'd hoped it would.
I made a point during the run to not read any review ... aside from its headline, just to discern whether we were "recommended" or not. I just knew that specific remarks would be a distraction, and that I'd deliver better work continuing to rely on the feedback from my director, stage manager, and of course the audiences each night. Only now, weeks after closing, am I finally delving in to read what the critics thought.
Below, find pull quotes from each review. For brevity, these only address my work, and the multiple-actor re-imagining concept. Links lead to the entire review, online.
"About Face’s Charlotte is played by Delia Kropp, a transgendered actress. Three [other] actors now flesh out the story, providing male counterweights to this outsider’s confessional. Splendidly shaped by Andrew Volkoff and perfectly pictured by Brian Prather’s telling props, this fluid “reimagining” delivers all the quicksilver nuances and treacherous turns in Wright’s necessarily convoluted exposure.
The bold casting works well: Kropp’s sometimes impassive dignity is a forceful presence in a plot that needs no artificial excitement to hit home."
- Lawrence Bommer, Stage and Cinema
"With Delia Kropp taking on the role, I Am My Own Wife takes on a whole new urgency. Thirteen years after [Jefferson] Mays roared through town with the story, it remains a piece of theater that will whipsaw you from gutting heartbreak to soaring hopefulness. The power this time around rests largely in Kropp, whose unique blend of talent, training and biology makes for a Charlotte von Mahlsdorf that will leave you filled with awe and joy ... Kropp has always been a formidable actor, working for over a decade in Chicago in roles ranging from Dr. Baylis in All My Sons to Alan in Equus. She took time off to transition, and began her career as a female actor earlier this year. In doing so, Kropp made history. She’s the only transwoman actor in Chicago whose career spans both ends of the gender spectrum. But while being a transwoman means that Kropp brings a powerful authenticity to I Am My Own Wife, it would be a disservice to label her as a trans actor. First and foremost, she’s an amazingly powerful performer."
- Catey Sullivan, Chicago Theatre Beat, 3.5 Stars
"The choice to bring a transgender actor to the role of Charlotte for the first time in the play’s history, and to divide the remaining roles among a trio of male actors, makes a powerful and important statement. By separating Charlotte from the rest of the characters and by eliminating the single actor’s transitions between every person in the play, not only is Charlotte more clearly centered as the unique and fascinating subject of the play’s action, but the reality of her gender identity is able to exist in an honest way. The line between a trans woman and a man in a dress is distinct and unblurred by the protagonist’s being embodied in a male actor. In a world in which transgender lives, and especially those of trans women, are so constantly at risk, to put a trans woman onstage to tell a trans woman’s story carries enormous weight.
"This is not even to mention the extraordinary talent of lead actor Delia Kropp, whose performance captures Charlotte’s personality in an utterly truthful, nuanced way. From her unbridled enthusiasm for her beloved furniture, to her energetic and emotional recreation of the past, to her refusal to speak of the darkest and most clouded parts of her history, Kropp allows Charlotte humanity and mystery all at once, and her performance is utterly gripping.
I Am My Own Wife is a vital performance for people of any gender identity or sexual orientation, especially now. About Face Theatre, Andrew Volkoff, and Delia Kropp have brought a desperately needed story to the stage, and its implications are far-reaching and consequential."
- Jessie Bond, Splash Magazines
That quiet resolution and complexity is at the core of Kropp's understated performance, which dominates director Andrew Volkoff's new production at About Face, the same company, albeit under different leadership, that worked on this show in 2003 with director Moises Kaufman. Not only does Kropp look very much like the photos of Von Mahlsdorf, but she evokes that personality of the determined rebel laced with a smidgen of expediency.
This is a smaller and less formal production than the original, exquisitely designed staging, which cast Charlotte inside a giant collection of the objects that filled her museum and contained a central performance of such depth as to be intimidating in its theatricality. The other change that will surprise those who've seen this work before is the presence of four actors — which makes the show less of a solo tour de force, of course, but also lightens some of the narrative burden for Kropp, removing the need to play other roles and thus allowing the performer to focus on the nuances of character. Scott Duff, Ninos Baba and Matt Holzfeind all are there to support Kropp.
That said, I prefer the one-person version, and there were things about that 2003 show (and bravura performance) that I've never forgotten. But the presence of Charlotte felt welcome this past weekend, and there is much to admire in how Kropp takes a very different tack from Mays. In this new show, Kropp works to express this character's quotidian side, her determination to keep calm and carry on, even as the uniforms change, and to keep finding transgressive spaces and making a small difference in that which she can control.
Chris Jones, Chicago Tribune
3 out of 4 stars
This revised version, deftly directed by Andrew Volkoff, features Delia Kropp (an openly transgender
actress) as Charlotte, with three additional actors (Scott Duff, Matt Holzfeind and Ninos Baba) added
to play the various male roles once enacted by the Charlotte character herself. If this shift steals a bit of the bravura thunder from the usual solo turn, so be it. The character of Charlotte can unquestionably hold her own. So does Kropp, whose slender form, wizened face, and white-blond hair is ideal for Charlotte, and whose neatly understated performance, combined with the intriguing element of her real-life personal transformation, combine ideally.
Hedy Weiss, Chicago Sun-Times
Doug Wright’s clunky, disjointed Tony and Pulitzer Prize winner presents isolated fragments from the singular life of Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, a cross-dressing German antiques collector who survived Nazi and Communist oppression in sensible heels. Wright unwisely makes himself a central character in the play, dramatizing his struggles to cobble together her story (oh no, another grant ran out!) as though they matter beside her travails. Unwiser still, he spends nearly two hours venerating her courageous, eccentric life only to suggest she may have made most of it up. Although the play was written as a one-person show, director Andrew Volkoff casts four actors for this “reimagined” About Face revival - an improvement insofar as the 40-something characters aren’t all stuck in the same dress. Transgender actor Delia Kropp’s measured, mystifying turn as Von Mahlsdorf saves the evening.
Justin Hayford, The Chicago Reader
4 of 5 stars (based on 25 user reviews)
Out of fear for her mother and the rest of her family, Charlottle murders her father, and Kropp played the horrific and challenging moment with a lovely sense of tension and fear. ... As a pair, Kropp and Duff showcase an excellent chemistry that becomes an honest friendship. Duff portrays Wright with a beautiful amount of excitement and curiosity that grows over the course of the play. I believed his pure investment in Charlotte’s story, and every time he returned to Germany to continue his interviews, Duff increased the sense of desire and passion for the story that clearly consumed him. Kropp was simply lovely, and added an incredible honesty to the story in this historical moment as a trans actress playing the famous transgender woman. The role is a difficult one, forcing the actress to play various ages and moments from the early 1940s through the interviews in the early 2000s. However, Kropp tackled the challenge with grace, and created an exciting story I was eager to watch unfold. Cleverly designed, beautifully acted, and newly imagined, I Am My Own Wife is a play you do not want to miss.
Lauren Katz, Picture This Post
If there is one reason to see About Face’s new staging, it is the performance of Delia Kropp. As Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, Kropp crafts a performance that is both mercurial and genuine. Von Mahlsdorf at times is nonchalant in telling some of the more fascinating moments of her life, while others–such as details about an attic where men and women, gay and straight, occupied their time on various beds and couches–are savored with a wry coyness. Her portrayal is powerful and alluring, drawing you in like the Mona Lisa’s smile.... Compared to Kropp, the other actors do less to draw you into von Mahlsdorf’s story. At times, their presence halts the piece’s momentum, which has been gently calibrated by Kropp. While Volkoff’s staging presents some interesting visuals for the four actors, it is when Kropp is speaking that the audience is truly at attention.
In some ways, this new interpretation emboldens certain aspects of the original material, connecting it with current events by focusing on a trans actor. However, when it comes to one of the play’s central questions, the reliability of its narrator, the presence of three other actors serves to cloud the lens through which audiences view the play, distancing our own views about the veracity of her tale.
Brent Eickhoff, Third Coast Review
People who would like this show are people who like inspiring stories, record hoarders, and illegal clocks. I think people should definitely go see this show. It was a really great and beautiful show, and I really loved it.
Ada Grey, Ada Grey Reviews for You
Watching this play at the end of one of the most turbulent and fraught weeks in recent American history was extremely moving. The parallels that have been drawn, easily and without much effort, between the ideas President-elect Trump has been touting and the Nazi and communist regimes were starkly in evidence in Charlotte's story. ... Delia Kropp and her co-stars along with director Andrew Volkoff achieved something special here. This work is both completely in-tune with our current political climate while instilling both sadness and hope in the audience. Charlotte's perfectly human story is not so much an inspiration, as a reclamation of the banality of evil we are capable of and the pure unmitigated joy we can find in the darkest of places.
Beth Dugan, Edge Media Network
Delia Kropp gives a fascinating performance. Charlotte labeled herself as a transvestite and never opted for sexual reassignment surgery. Delia portrays her with soft androgyny. Kropp's authenticity in voice and mannerism is striking. Her lengthy passages of monologue illuminate the imagination. ... It's by no accident About Face selected "I Am My Own Wife" for their season. As the political tides turn, some lgbt communities are worried their legitimacy may be less certain. Doug Wright's play about Charlotte von Mahlsdorf is a reassuring testament to everyday heros. As his character says in the play, "I need to believe this."
John Accrocco, Buzz News Chicago
Every play I’ve seen since November 8th has seemed like a small rebellion. I crowd into small dark rooms with strangers to see something beautiful and hope that it will steel me, change me into someone better equipped for the world outside. About Face Theatre’s production of I AM MY OWN WIFE crystallized this feeling for me.... Having seen a production of the one-man show (if you’ll pardon the incongruous phrase) a few years ago, I have to say that I loved the casting and the staging of this production with four actors. Delia Kropp is magnificent as Charlotte. For Kropp to play alongside actor Scott Duff as Wright allows for a joyful interplay that just isn’t possible with one actor. The audience watches the playwright become enamored with this mysterious and impossible person. Charlotte, in turn, is delighted by the attention and opportunity to share the items and stories from her past which she has so carefully curated.
Charlotte gives a number of performances—recitations of speeches about an antique Victrola or a particularly harrowing event involving the Stasi police. The audience must wonder: is this measured delivery simply part of her nature as a docent of her own history? Or is there something false in the story? Kropp does a beautiful job toeing the line and keeping us wondering. Ninos Baba and Matt Holzfeind deliver strong supporting performances that make the show a tightly woven ensemble piece. Brian Prather’s set is a gorgeous backdrop for the action and Sarah Espinoza’s sound design weaves in and out of the story beautifully.
The script itself seems different for me this time around and not just because of the expanded casting. Doug Wright struggled with Charlotte’s complicated past. Early on, he tells Charlotte, “You are teaching me a history I never knew I had.” Later, he has trouble reconciling any amount of deception in a person so brave and beautiful. Charlotte isn’t a symbol; she’s a person—complicated and at times disappointing. I happened to see this play on Transgender Day of Remembrance. Already, since the play’s original production, the conversation around transgender and genderqueer identity has changed radically. It has made me, as I hope others, reflect more carefully on the things I think I understand.
Smyra Yawn, Performink
Our production earned two "end of year" recommendations. Perhaps in keeping with our unusual subject, we ended up appearing on the more offbeat and eccentric "best-of" lists of 2016!
Ada Grey's Top 10 Plays and Top 5 Musicals of 2016
About Face Theatre's I Am My Own Wife.
"People who would like this show are people who like inspiring stories, record hoarders, and illegal clocks. I think people should definitely go see this show. It was a really great and beautiful show, and I really loved it."
Chicago Magazine's The Best and Wierdest of Chicago Theatre
"Best History-Making, Gender-Transcending Performance"
Delia Kropp made history when she returned to Chicago stages as a woman, the post-transition second act in a career she started decades ago, pre-transition. As Charlotte Von Mahlsdorf, an East German transwoman who survived both the Nazis and the Communists, Kropp made one thing abundantly clear. She’s not a trans actor. She’s an extraordinary actor, who happens to be trans.