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One actor plays 36 roles telling story of transvestite in Nazi Germany

Pronounce it properly (on the off chance that someone at a party asks your views on World War II-era German transvestites):

"Trons-ves-TEAT." Glam-ham drag queen? Actually, plain black dress. Black orthopedic shoes. Barbara Bush-y string of pearls. At age 65, a "tranny granny" who "doesn’t have breasts, but just enough paunch to give the illusion."

Say hiya ("ha-loh" in German) to Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, dead nine years, alive onstage via Cory Benway.

"There are no ‘w’ sounds in German," stage manager Denda Brink cautions the actor midmonologue, in midrehearsal, about his German-accented English.

"I’ve got a week and a half to learn this (expletive)," says Benway as Benway. "What I don’t know I’ll make up. Who the hell’s going to know?"

Dude/dame is kidding. And a week and a half is down to one day, as the one-man/woman "I Am My Own Wife" opens Friday at the Onyx Theatre, featuring the respected local actor performing … is this right? … 36 characters?

Director Joe Hynes corrects our math. "It’s 37," Hynes says. "We’re also having him take tickets."

Offbeat, with outstanding pedigree (scoring the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for drama and Tony Award for best play), "Wife" puts Benway in girly getups for the third time in Las Vegas — he previously portrayed Dr. Frank N’ Furter in "The Rocky Horror Show" and the title character in "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" — for a "tranny trifecta."

Playwright Doug Wright’s "Wife" recounts his interviews with von Mahlsdorf, a renowned antiquarian who died at age 74 in 2002.

Biologically a guy, he/she (pick your pronoun) navigated both the Nazi and Communist regimes in plain sight as a gal in East Berlin, with harrowing stories of survival amid the Gestapo and the Stasi, the East German secret police. Killing her abusive Nazi officer father, she also faced a Nazi firing squad that ultimately declined to shoot her.

Famously, she operated the Grunderzeit Museum, comprised of items she took from the homes of deported Jews, especially those from the 1890s, such as furniture, clocks, Vitrolas and gramophones, to protect them, growing into a huge collection in Germany.

Retelling her tale while never shedding his black frock and pearls, Benway also plays characters including the playwright himself, a TV talk-show host, an American reporter, friends, members of Charlotte’s family and several nasty authoritarians.

"She’s simple and plain and there’s a certain loveliness about her that breaks your heart," Benway says. "Everything she did — even taking records during Hitler’s reign by Jewish composers, cutting out false labels and gluing them to the labels with German polkas and waltzes — her idea was, ‘I have to protect this.’ "

Adds Hynes: "When she took those items, she was preserving a moment in time. It’s beautiful and haunting. What makes it so astounding is that it’s true."

Perhaps. Perhaps not. Perhaps in between. Controversy dogged her in later life — some believed she was a Stasi informant — and Charlotte’s straightforward story in Act I turns murkier — and more intriguing — in Act II as the audience wonders what is and isn’t credible.

Upon its 2003 Broadway debut, reviewer Bruce Weber of The New York Times noted: "(It) quite powerfully makes a case for the necessity of storytelling in our lives … to endure the world, people may lie about themselves or to themselves, and the lies are as important as the truth."

Assembling a one-actor/36-character show has been a head-rattler for both performer and director. "This is the single largest staging nightmare I’ve had as a director," Hynes says about attempting to make the constant character shifts seem seamless.

"We don’t want it to be Jekyll and Hyde, where it’s changing back and forth. It’s like directing a bunch of people. But Cory’s bipolar, so …"

Joking though he is, a sort of theatrical bipolar approach is demanded, and it’s a stress point for Benway. "There are moments when I wake up speaking very bad German," Benway jokes, but adds:

"Every character is seen in a string of pearls and orthopedic shoes and it’s my challenge to make sure you don’t see Charlotte every time someone new comes along. We really worked on posture and facial expressions. I have different voices for each one. Charlotte and Doug (the playwright) are the main characters and it’s easy to take mannerisms from one and give it to the other, especially in conversations between each other."

Alternative-minded in its productions, the cozy Onyx seems the perfect "I Am My Own Wife" host — "it would have been great at Spring Mountain Ranch at Super Summer Theatre: Bring the kids!" Hynes jokes — and on this rehearsal night, Benway stalks the stage as a "Sybil"-esque one-man cast.

"Whenever you’re ready, Mr. Benway," Hynes says to kick-start the run-through.

Charlotte’s clipped, effeminate German accent, its rhythms almost like a metronome in Benway’s precise voice, soon morphs into an American reporter’s swaggering speech, the haughty, intellectual tones of the playwright character, the defiant declarations of Charlotte’s childhood protector, her lesbian aunt — and back again.

Quips stage manager Denda Brink: "You have to be just irritated enough to sound German."

Noting his reliance on a single actor, Hynes makes the audience a promise:

"If he gets hit by a bus, we’ll knock it to half-price."

Contact reporter Steve Bornfeld at sbornfeld@review journal.com or 702-383-0256.

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