IF YOU GO
What: One-man show about a East German who survived the Nazis and the Communists
When: 8 p.m. through Feb. 3. Additional 3 p.m. matinee showings on Jan. 20, 26, 27 & Feb. 2 & 3.
Where: Norris Community Center, 755 Eighth Ave. S., Naples
Cost: $40 & $45, $15 for students
Information: 866-811-4111 or gulfshoreplayhouse.org
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NAPLES — A large onion sits on a brightly colored paper plate at the rear of the Norris Center auditorium. Snacks, phones, scripts, coffee cups (and not just from Starbucks) cough drops, highlighters, pens, papers and cigarettes, two laptops and a few lunches litter four conference tables. If creativity exploded, this might be what it would look like.
Gulfshore Playhouse producing artistic director Kristen Coury, actor Kraig Swartz and staff members are breaking down Act Two of Doug Wright play "I Am My Own Wife." No one volunteers the purpose of the onion.
The play, based on a true story, explores the life of Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, an East German man who survived both the Nazis and the brutal Communist regime as a cross-dressing museum owner.
Coury calls the show "a beautiful piece of art."
"I am enthralled by the amount of 'theatre-magic' with only one man in one costume bringing 37 characters to life," Coury said.
One actor - Swartz - plays 37 different roles, from Charlotte to Nazi soldier to East German prostitute to the playwright himself. Today, Coury and Swartz are working over a scene that finds East German man Alfred Kirschner in prison.
This particular moment, coming at the top of the second half, underpins one of the play's major emotional truths. Audiences see glimpses of the truth - or is it the fiction - of the diffused reality with which the Charlotte von Mahlsdorf persona wrapped her life. Did the character turn a once-trusted friend over to the secret police? Or did Charlotte confuse and befuddle the Communists as well as she did everyone else?
"This is one of the big sins of her life," Swartz voices as he and Coury talk through the scene. "I want them to be good together because I want there to be something to break."
The actor has performed hundreds of one-man shows; Swartz thinks he's done about 300 performances of restaurant-from-hell comedy "Fully Committed," but says that it never comes easy.
"In a one-man show, you're up there all alone," Swartz said. "You've got to be able to drop right into the [different] bodies with no time to find your way into [them]."
"There's nothing weirder than a French Nazi!"
So, how do you play 37 different characters and make it look easy?
"Nothing looks so much like effortlessness as lots and lots of work," he said.
The actor does his homework. Some characters have pages of dialogue to establish their personalities. Others have a few sentences. Each offers clues - like an accent, an occupation - to how they should be portrayed. In a one-man (or one-woman) show, each character, no matter how big or how small, is as important as the last.
Swartz takes each character, like a Nazi soldier, and tries to visualize a person in a fit of rage.
"What do I remember about how that person looked, how they screamed, how they pounded the table?" Swartz said. "That Nazi soldier has got to be as specific as anyone else."
Sometimes, the guttural German drifts into French during rehearsal, Swartz confesses.
"There's nothing weirder than a French Nazi!" he declares.
Of all the characters in the show, including seven or eight Nazi or Stasi (the East German secret police) soldiers, Swartz admits the most difficult might be an American soldier.
"Its the guy from Terre Haute," he said. I keep slipping into an accent like you'd hear in 'Fargo.'"
For Coury, directing "I Am My Own Wife" is "incredibly different" than steering ensemble drama like "A Streetcar Named Desire" or "A Doll's House."
"It is counter-intuitive," Coury said of directing a solo show. "All the things we know work with more than one person on stage specifically do NOT work with only one actor."
Coury calls Swartz her "partner in crime" as they continue work on the show. She hopes audiences leave with both an expanded worldview and a lot to talk about.
"As is the appeal with all good stories, the themes are universal," Coury said. "Charlotte's story is about courage. The courage to be who you truly are despite governmental, societal and familial influences telling you otherwise."