And clothes make the man of "I Am My Own Wife" as compelling a vision on a stage as has ever been seen.
But, then, this past season's Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning play is no mere costume drama; the saga of East Berlin transvestite Charlotte von Mahlsdorf is dressed for success in the most spectacular manner possible – clothed in an acutely accomplished script that addresses self-identity and self-determination.
The man behind the woman – and her clothing – on stage is a contemporary couturier in theatrical high fashion; playwright Doug Wright created the script for one man/woman (and just a few simple accessories ) in a series of national workshops, which included the Wilma Theater, prior to Broadway.
"I Am My Own Wife" is having its local premiere through Oct. 23 at the Wilma, in Center City, with Floyd King as Charlotte and Philadelphian Kevin Bergen as the playwright – a role incorporated on Broadway by the show's one actor (Jefferson Mays).
This isn't the first collaboration between Wright and Wilma; the playwright first put his "Quills" to paper back in 1996 at the theater. That stagecraft focused on the mysteries of the Marquis de Sade, whipping up a Barrymore Award in the process.
Is Wright just masochistic attempting dramas about divas who deviate from the norm?
"Well," he says, "they are unusual characters to draw on."
And neither draws a straight line through history. While the "Quills" character's quirks and quandaries are well-documented, those of Charlotte are not as well-known – a fact rectified by Wright's crossover of a script.
What is known is the German transvestite's triumphant survival under the Nazis – where gays were just one step behind Jews on the train track to hell – and then the Communists. It was her ability to reinvent herself in an age where hate vented its soullessness through the most tragic of manifestations that command respect.
But the pure fabric of Charlotte's little black dress, accessorized with a string of pearls, was in stark contrast to her black lies and fabrications. "My suspicion that she was part truth and part fiction was borne out after her death" at age 74 in 2002, when previous allegations that Charlotte had been an informant for the Stasi, the East German police, were confirmed.
Not that she even bothered to hide the truth from the playwright, who considered her a woman of mystery clothed in controversy: "There will always be some mystery about her," says Wright of the woman born Lothar Berfelde, whom he interviewed a number of times in Berlin over a six-month span beginning in summer 1992.
What Charlotte brings to her historical role – and her role-playing – is more than serving as hero by standing up to others, claims Wright. The change she brought as a transvestite was the transformation of how others saw her, "becoming recognized as a human being."
On stage, surrounded by antique furniture, on which she hangs her hat as a closet collector of the past, Charlotte is as assured of her own self as assuaged by the fact that she has survived what life has tossed in her path. "She offered a potent antidote to self-loathing," says Wright of the character's contemporary lessons.
"Characters who seem so outrageous," reasons Wright, "represent our own appetites distilled."
The cocktail of concoction and conversation – and not knowing which is which on stage – is part of the play's patina of mystique. With all its lessons to offer, the drama is no mere titillating tutorial, however: "Charlotte has too much charm to allow the play to slip into a lecture," says Wright.
The original ensemble cast of one had to make sure the character's ensemble of black dress and pearls was packed well for a recent trip to Poland. Jeffrey Mays reprised his original role there last spring in a tour sponsored by the Sundance Institute, with workshops offered by Wright and original director/collaborator Moises Kaufman.
Charlotte certainly travels well – even if the production in Philadelphia doubles the luggage she brings with her. Why allow director Blanka Zizka, Wilma co-artistic director, to change the format, using two actors instead of the one?
"Trust," says Wright, who is also an associate artist of the Wilma.
And a trust fund of a literary legacy is what Wright hopes to leave theater. Whatever the future dictates – Wright is currently working on a musical about the Grey Gardens, the notorious East Hampton crumbling camp of the Bouvier Beale family explored in a 1975 documentary – the theatrical titan from Texas whose lone ranger astide the stage has achieved so much isn't about to be saddled with self-doubt himself.
No matter what may come in his literary career, his own identity is assured: "I'll still have the Pulitzer and the Tony," he says. "They can't take those bookends away."