'I Am My Own Wife'
[CHICAGO, IL] - From the moment she walks demurely, if not entirely innocently, onto the stage--looking like a cross between a slightly liberated nun, a late-Victorian nanny and a Greek widow--there is something completely captivating about Charlotte von Mahlsdorf. And the more you get to know this peculiar bellwether of 20th century European history--whose defining outfit is a prim black dress, a strand of pearls and sensible black oxfords--the more intriguing, elusive and wholly remarkable she becomes.
To begin with, the "she" is a "he"--a lifelong transvestite. Yet that is the very least of the surprises in the enthralling new one-man, multicharacter theater piece, "I Am My Own Wife." Now in a brief engagement at the Museum of Contemporary Art Theatre, under the auspices of Chicago's About Face Theatre, the production is set for a spring debut at Playwrights Horizons in New York.
The creation of Doug Wright (author of the stage version and Golden Globe-winning screenplay for "Quills"), "I Am My Own Wife" has been directed by Moises Kaufman, the force behind hit documentary-inspired theater pieces such as "The Laramie Project" and "Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde." And it features a dazzling, chameleonlike performance by Jefferson Mays, in what is perhaps the finest solo turn since Robert Morse transformed himself into Truman Capote.
Based on a true story, and inspired by interviews Wright conducted with the seventysomething Charlotte before "her" death last year, "I Am My Own Wife" is at once a vivid portrait of Germany in the second half of the 20th century, a morally complex tale about what it can take to be a survivor, and an intriguing meditation on everything from the obsession with collecting to the passage of time. Above all, the play is a consideration of the nature of truth and the meaning of the phrase "strength of character."
The son of a physically and emotionally abusive father who he may or may not have actually murdered, Lothar transformed himself into "Charlotte" in his very early teenage years, and living as a girlish boy he somehow managed to survive the Nazi onslaught, despite its loathing of deviant sexuality.
Most of Charlotte's adult life was spent under the repressive Communist regime in East Germany, where she turned her large house into a hidden museum of Germany's past, stuffed with furniture and a remarkable collection of gramophone records, her abiding passion. In this museum she also operated a pansexual guest house of sorts, surviving by collaborating with the Stasi, the much-feared secret police. With the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the subsequent unification of Germany, Charlotte become a controversial figure as revelations about her past stirred deep emotions on all sides.
Wright's clever structuring of the play--his initial discovery and pursuit of Charlotte, and his continually shifting view of her as the newly opened East German archives revealed the increasingly compromised and compromising aspects of her life--endows it with a winning edge. And the writing is glorious throughout--sharp, funny, admiring and full of ambivalence and wonder.
As for Mays, his embodiment of Charlotte is so complete--from the calculatedly genteel walk to the shrewdly fetching use of his eyes and his jumble of broken English and perfectly accented German--that you can hardly imagine any other version of her. He also plays, among many other characters, the roles of the writer and his friend, a macho American journalist stationed in Berlin who first brings Charlotte to his attention, as well as Alfred, the homosexual and collector who is Charlotte's only real friend, and whom she betrays (perhaps--or perhaps not--on his own urging) to the Stasi after the two are caught selling antiques on the black market to American soldiers.
Set designer Derek McLane (who recently created the fantastical world of "The Rose Tattoo" at the Goodman Theatre) has devised a charming little Old World room of lace-covered wallpaper, with a towering wall of furniture and bric-a-brac arranged behind it, and seductively revealed from time to time through a scrim. But these museum treasures are most touchingly embodied by a handful of miniature furniture pieces that Charlotte displays.
Charlotte, of course, is her own historical museum--a warehouse of lies and truth, of authenticity and self-creation, of admirably steely, unbending self-preservation and corrupt malleability. You are intrigued by her, even when you do not approve of her, for if nothing else, she is, in the face of every situation, very much her own person, as well as her own wife.
NOTE: "I Am My Own Wife" is the centerpiece of a Festival of New Plays at the MCA that also includes workshops and readings of works in development by Patricia Kane, Sarah Ruhl, Claudia Allen, Paul Oakley Stovall, Megan Carney, Scott Duff and cin salach.