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One star, 500 sidekicks

Doug Wright's 'I Am My Own Wife' is staged with a lone actor -- and $60,000 worth of antique furnishings.

June 26, 2005|Victoria Looseleaf | Special to The Times

When it comes to antique clocks and gramophones, Mike Pilipski is the go-to guy.

As production property manager for Doug Wright's Tony- and Pulitzer Prize-winning drama "I Am My Own Wife," Pilipski was charged with finding 14 gramophones and 12 clocks, along with 500 other items, including chandeliers, vases, credenzas, coffee tables and statuettes.

The items, which represent the life of East German transvestite Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, fill Derek McLane's steroidal set, made up of a 40-by-27-foot steel and mesh module at the back of the stage.

Explains Pilipski, a prop shop owner who's been in the business for 35 years: "I investigated the German era back to 1880 and went to 25 different antique stores in the area. The props alone cost around $60,000 -- even though I haggled."

McLane's module -- five levels of 4-by-8-foot blocks, five rows across -- houses the props, which are bolted, glued and nailed down. But the job wasn't just a matter of stashing the items into boxes; Pilipski had to cut most of the clocks to fit.

"Clocks come bigger, and a lot of fabrication was involved. I found clock faces, cut them out and then put applique -- scrollwork, carved wood and molding -- to make them look gothic-y. Then we painted and aged them, tricks of the trade."

The production, presented by the Geffen Playhouse at the Wadsworth Theatre in West L.A., stars Jefferson Mays as the dress-and-pearl-wearing Von Mahlsdorf, a survivor of the Nazi onslaught and the ensuing Communist regime, who frequently regales the audience with affectionate descriptions of the furniture.

Directed by Moises Kaufman, the one-man play is based on interviews Wright conducted with Von Mahlsdorf in Berlin over several years in the early '90s. In "Wife," Mays portrays or voices some three dozen other characters. His efforts earned him a Tony Award.

At the top of the show, Mays enters with an antique gramophone. Pilipski purchased the 1877 hand-cranked Edison, featuring the RCA dog Nipper on its label, for $2,500. "It weighs a ton," says Mays, "and there's a lot of metal machinery in there. But that's my little task. I figure if I can get through that, I can get through the next two hours."

Pilipski assembled some of the other gramophones himself, scouting horns and turntable boxes separately.

What was an obsessive love for Von Mahlsdorf proved a challenge for McLane. "The idea of this man/woman who is a furniture collector and the fact that the play has to move so effortlessly from place to place, covering such a huge time period and many different locations

But have module, will travel. "The set comes apart in a series of giant boxes, and we're able to ship it relatively effectively," Wright says.

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