Surviving the 20th century in ‘I Am My Own Wife’
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Before he turned his attention to Jacqueline Kennedy’s eccentric relatives in the musical “Gray Gardens,” and to cosmetic titans Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden in the new musical, “War Paint,” Douglas Wright won both a Tony Award and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for “I Am My Own Wife,” his play about the German transvestite Charlotte von Mahlsdorf (1928 – 2002), who miraculously — and some would say both shrewdly and problematically — managed to survive both the Nazi regime and the post-war Soviet occupation of East Berlin.
Initially devised as a one-person play (which is how it first made its mark when it had its pre-Broadway debut at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art in 2002, with an unforgettable performance by Jefferson Mayes), the work is now receiving a revival, in reconfigured form, by About Face Theatre, which was crucial to its original development process.
This revised version, deftly directed by Andrew Volkoff, features Delia Kropp (an openly transgender actress) as Charlotte, with three additional actors (Scott Duff, Matt Holzfeind and Ninos Baba) added to play the various male roles once enacted by the Charlotte character herself. If this shift steals a bit of the bravura thunder from the usual solo turn, so be it. The character of Charlotte can unquestionably hold her own. So does Kropp, whose slender form, wizened face, and white-blond hair is ideal for Charlotte, and whose neatly understated performance, combined with the intriguing element of her real-life personal transformation, combine ideally.
‘I AM MY OWN WIFE’
When: Through Dec. 10
Where: About Face Theatre at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont
Run time: 1 hour and 40 minutes, with one intermission
It all begins in 1989, the year when the Berlin Wall came tumbling down. That is when Wright (played by Duff), hears from a journalist friend working in Germany that there is someone he should meet — someone “right up his alley.”
Before long, Wright is on a plane, eager to interview the rather prim woman in orthopedic shoes and pearls who was born Lothar Berfelde. The son of an early Nazi adherent and wife abuser, Lothar early on identified as female. Much later, as Charlotte, she founded the Grunderzeit Museum (“a museum of everyday things,” from furniture to gramophones and vintage records), that at various times from the 1970s on was used as a “safe” meeting place for homosexuals.
To be sure, Charlotte is “a character” — one who, as Wright only very gradually discovers, has finessed quite a skillful way of spinning her eccentric charm and remarkable story, even if many questions linger. Did she really murder her father? Perhaps. As a teenager, how did she manage to elude death by the Nazis, who surely had no love for homosexuals and transvestites? As an adult, living under the repressive East German regime, how was she able to not only amass her vast collections, and keep both them, and herself, in tact? (The plays does not mention that during the war she helped a second-hand dealer clear out the apartments of deported Jews and sometimes kept items.)
And yes, she was, like many others, pressured by the Stasi to serve as an informer. And perhaps most telling of all, she sacrificed a fellow collector — a gay man she seemed to love (played by Holzfeind) — to save her own skin. She could work the black market, too, selling clocks to American G.I.s in post-war Berlin. And after the fall of the Wall, she reveled in the media limelight — until, that is, it turned against her.
Wright is an immensely seductive writer who not only captured Charlotte’s voice (though he recorded many conversations, this is far from a “transcription”), but nailed his own persona with witty accuracy. And he has a great flair for humorous details, as when Charlotte, with playfully raised eyebrows, reads the titillating entries in a guide book devoted to gay hotspots in Berlin.
Brian Prather’s set, which suggests the high-ceilings of Berlin apartments, is expertly decorated with Vivian Knouse’s props, and Bob Kuhn’s costumes are spot on.
As an observer of Charlotte notes at one point in the play: “She is a museum.” Yes, in many ways she embodied her own very particular history of Germany in the 20th century. And while you can judge her, or have ambivalent feelings about her, to borrow a lyric from “Cabaret,” you might also find yourself asking: “What would you do?”
Note: Doug Wright will be in town Nov. 19 for a conversation (12:30 p.m. – 1:30 p.m.) hosted by the Museum of Contemporary Art. For tickets visit http://www.aboutfacetheatre.org.