3/17/2019 I AM MY OWN WIFE Out Front Theatre Co
**** ( B+ )
After the fall of the Berlin Wall, Western observers made the acquaintance of a remarkable woman: Charlotte Von Mahlsdorf was the proprietress of an East Berlin Museum of knick-knacks and antiques, a veritable treasure trove of German late 19th-Century artisanship (The so-called "Gründerzeit"*). More remarkable, however, was that Charlotte was born a man, and managed to maintain her identity as a transvestite through both the Nazi regime and the post-war Communist regime.
In 1993, playwright Doug Wright (Quills) traveled to Berlin to interview Madame Von Mahlsdorf. He then used the resulting tapes to construct a play in which one actor plays himself, Charlotte, and a periphery of other characters, all in the service of telling this woman's remarkable story. In 2007, Actor's Express staged the piece showcasing a Suzi-winning performance by Doyle Reynolds.
Here, Out Front Theatre Company has brought in New York actor Peter Smith to bring Charlotte to life. Although Mr. Smith's portrayal does not have the depth and range of Mr. Doyle's (all their American characters seem to look and sound too similar), it is nevertheless a singular achievement, and, in Charlotte herself, compellingly original.
More than being an actor's showcase, though, this play is remarkable in its ambivalence towards its subject. Mr. Wright does not hide Charlotte's flaws: she was obsessive, she was a parricide, she was even a spy for the East
German Secret Police (maybe). She had a contagious joy in telling stories (true or not) and relating incidents from her life (true or not). She had an unshakable love for antiques and all the other paraphernalia of her life. She had an infinite capacity to rationalize and justify her actions. And she was fanatically and resolutely her own person (an ironic corollary to the play's title).
To recap as simply as possible, Charlotte was born Lothar Berfelde in 1928. At a young age, she realized she was more comfortable in the clothing and persona of a woman, and was encouraged in this pursuit by a lesbian aunt. Her father, though, to hear Charlotte's tale, was a Nazi-sympathizing bully, whom Lothar murdered in an act of self-defense. Or to protect her mother. Released from Juvenile Reformatory because of the war, she was able to hide while maintaining her identity as a transvestite, until the end of the war. Throughout the decades of Communist occupation of East Germany, she maintained her "museum" of Gründerzeit artifacts and furniture, Edison recording cylinders, and other paraphernalia. She also provided a secret haven for Berlin's LGBT community, and may have been compelled to inform on them by the East German police (the Stasi). She is able to rationalize those choices, claiming a man she informed on asked her to do it to protect the "safe house" status of the museum. In 1992, she received the Bundesverdienstkreuz, "Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany."
It's easy to understand the playwright's devotion to this subject -- Charlotte's life provided not only affirmation of Wright's own identity as a gay artist, but also showed the lengths to which a strong person can be driven to act in order to protect that identity. If Wright shows his own character to be a bit shallow and fawning -- well, to do otherwise would have muddied the focus of the piece.
I was originally of two minds as to whether the ambiguities in the factualness of Charlotte's stories works or not. Initially, After seeing the play in 2007, I thought that ambiguity hurt the play, that Charlotte would have been a more concrete character if Wright had passed some sort of judgment on her stories. But, in retrospect, leaving the ambiguities intact may have served Charlotte better. She wanted to be taken on her own terms. One of those terms being her life, her legacy as constructed through her stories. The accuracy of those stories is, in the final analysis, irrelevant.
In fact, after seeing this play, I watched a 1992 Docu-Drama on Charlotte, called I am My Own Woman (Ich bin meine eigene Frau), which is an unambiguous ode to Charlotte, totally white-washing her Stasi ties, and ending with the Bundesverdienstkreuz award. For my tastes, the play is a more effective piece, despite the presence of Charlotte herself in the film, often in conversation with the actors playing her at younger ages. It may be simply that the filmmakers were working before Charlotte's 2002 death, or, more likely, the film itself is part of the oral-history legacy she chose to leave behind.
Scenic Designers Paul Conroy and Graham Miller have chosen to put Charlotte in a plain beige set with a few suggested wall items and props to "fill out" our imaginations (one wall hanging is both a clock's pendulum and a telephone, for example). While this does create a simple scheme for scene changes and segues, it nevertheless fails to evoke the cluttered reality of Charlotte's surroundings, as the 2007 Actor's Express dark prop-heavy set did. An argument can be made that it is a play about Charlotte, and not about her 'stuff," and for some, that may be true. I would counter that her "stuff" was a major part of her character and its absence, to my mind, diminishes her. A bit. Mr. Smith does what they can here, lovingly polishing or dusting a particular piece, or launching into a history of another, but it doesn't fill the profound emptiness of the physical space.
In any case, it's been 12 years since that prior production, and few new viewers will have the elephantine (and too-often faulty) memory I brought to the show.
In any case, whether you believe Charlotte or not, you will certainly believe Peter Smith and (most of) their roster of performances. I left the play wanting to know even more about Charlotte. For the record, a grainy copy of Ich bin meine eigene Frau can be found on YouTube HERE and is worth a look if you want to see and hear the real Charlotte. (Parts of it play in the lobby before the show.) (Fair Warning -- Charlotte loved the male form, and there is some full-frontal imagery and some R-Rated scenes that are decidedly NSFW.)
Doug Wright's I am My Own Wife and Out Front Theatre's staging of it remain an exceptional glimpse into the stories of an exceptional Human, one who was able to navigate the twin-razor blades of Nazi Occupation and Communist Oppression while wearing high heels. Whatever level of truthfulness propels this story, hers is truly a Survivor Song.
-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com @bk_rudy #OutFrontTheatre #IAmMyOwnWife)
* The Gründerzeit, literally "Time of Founders," was an economic era in Germany and Austria that pre-dated the Great Stock Market Crash of 1873. A large influx of capital, reparations from the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871), created a new generation of entrepreneurs and wealth. It was also a time of elegant Transvestite Balls and perceived loosening of anti-gay law enforcement, so Charlotte's obsession with the period should not come as a surprise. More info is HERE. For the record, a Gründerzeit is also a jim-dandy pre-show drink available at the Out Front bar.