Unreliable Narrators 

True lies shine through terrific one-man shows

At "He Said/(S)he Said," Actor's Express's repertory of two brilliant, blazing one-man plays, the clothes definitely do not make the men.

Actor Doyle Reynolds spends most of the Tony- and Pulitzer-winning I Am My Own Wife in a plain, black peasant dress, the drabness of which scarcely hints at the complexity of the central character, German transvestite Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, or the 35 other voices Reynolds channels in the work.

Meanwhile, as the title role of Thom Pain (Based on Nothing), Chris Kayser wears a black suit, white shirt, big glasses and thin, black tie. Pointedly anonymous, he could be anyone from a Japanese salary man to a Tarantino assassin, but he turns out to be both more and less than meets the eye.

Perhaps the only thing that Charlotte von Mahlsdorf and Thom Pain have in common is that we shouldn't accept either of them at face value. Charlotte's pioneering personality turns out to be increasingly compromised the more we discover of her story, while the irksome, self-loathing Thom Pain contradicts himself so often, he's more enigmatic at the play's ending than its beginning. The challenge to solve each work makes both I Am My Own Wife and Thom Pain (Based on Nothing) thrilling pieces of theater, although simply watching Reynolds and Kayser play their roles to the hilt is its own reward.

Charlotte von Mahlsdorf emerges as "one of the most eccentric individuals the Cold War ever birthed." The openly gay transvestite survived both the Third Reich and East Germany's regime and gets discovered after the Berlin Wall falls maintaining a museum of household objects from the 1890s. Mostly, we see Charlotte through the eyes of playwright Doug Wright, who tours her museum in Berlin and asks permission to write a play about her. I Am My Own Wife finds humorous contrast in Charlotte's soft-spoken, ladylike manners and Wright's blinkered, American creative priorities. He calls her a "slam dunk," as grant applications go.

Charlotte recounts such thrilling episodes as surviving an abusive Nazi father, a German firing squad and scrutiny from the Stasi (East Germany's secret police) while she was running an underground gay bar. But as Charlotte becomes a minor German celebrity, secrets from her past come out that portray her as far less than the heroic dissident Wright wishes her to be. With scarcely a change in outfit, Reynolds switches from Charlotte's melancholy to Wright's desperate disillusionment to dozens of other voices, from sinister secret policemen to the obtrusive international press corps.

I Am My Own Wife touches on queer politics of "sexual intermediaries" such as Charlotte, but proves more interested in the problems of history. Which is more reliable, the firsthand witness with the hidden agenda or the official records of a regime shot through with corruption? Throughout the play, Charlotte's precious clocks and wax sound recordings suggest both the value of treasuring the past and the inability to escape from it. Reynolds' performance captures both the personal dimensions and the more sweeping aspects of the story, while Wright's words have the richness of literary symbols.

Thom Pain, written by Will Eno, provokes different kinds of literary associations. After seeing the opening performance, a playwright friend enthused to me, "It's like 'Krapp's Last Tape' and 'The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.'" And I said, "Yes! And Tristram Shandy. And Shakespeare's 'All the world's a stage' soliloquy." In fact, it's much easier to say what Thom Pain is like than what it actually is.

"Thom Pain" probably isn't even the actual name of the monologist who goes off on tangents, avoids finishing his stories, changes details and asks his audience unanswerable questions. Frequently, he returns to incidents from his childhood and a more recent relationship with a woman, while circling any clear point. Perhaps the most vivid anecdote concerns a boy stung by a swarm of bees and misinterpreting the insects' intentions as trying to cure his sudden, painful welts. The narrator then asks if we haven't all done something similar, mistaking enemies for friends.

Pain remains a hilarious speaker, quipping like Jack Handey or a McSweeney's humorist. Of his love affair, he remarks, "I disappeared into her -- and she, wondering where I'd gone, left." At another point, he declares, "I have a rich internal life," and then says nothing for an awkward, endless pause that suggests the exact opposite.

A show with so many anticlimaxes and false starts could be the most frustrating work imaginable, and it's a credit to Kayser and Alliance Theatre artistic director Susan V. Booth (directing her first show for an Atlanta playhouse outside the Woodruff Arts Center) that Thom Pain is both laugh-out-loud funny and dramatically satisfying.

Although Kayser plays the role in a key of monumental bitterness, he doesn't let the acidic temperament completely color the character. Instead, he teases out Thom Pain's inarticulate aspiration to pass along some words of wisdom about the meaning of life and love in an indifferent universe. Attune to Pain's inner suffering, Kayser achieves the seemingly impossible task of making him sympathetic.

By pairing such dissimilar works, Actor's Express sets up an interesting conversation between the two monologue plays. To me, their contrast suggests an innate difference between Europe and America, the Old World and the New. Charlotte's nonconformity gets all but crushed by the weight of brutal European history across nearly the entire 20th century. Thom Pain, meanwhile, seems plagued by a uniquely American emptiness that has left a void in his soul. Each speaker embodies a deeply disturbing predicament, and yet we hang on their every word.

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