Long Wharf Tells a Fascinating True Story in ‘I Am My Own Wife’
Even the simplest human being is complicated, and Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, the central character in I Am My Own Wife, is more so than most. She is incredibly complex and her story is amazing.
The Long Wharf production runs through Sunday, March 1.
While this is a one-person play, don’t think you are only going to hear one voice or meet one character. You will hear multiple voices (all from Mason Alexander Park) and meet many characters. In fact you will hear from more than 40 people, though some appearances are very brief.
The play, which in 2002 won not only the Pulitzer Prize for Drama but also multiple awards including the Tony award for best play, is based on interviews done by the playwright.
In the 1990s, playwright Doug Wright was tipped off by a friend about a fascinating person living in Berlin. Over the next few years, Wright interviewed the person, learned the story, and exchanged dozens of letters.
The person was von Mahlsdorf.
Her story was extraordinary for many reasons. She was born a male, but from early age assumed a female persona; her father was a Nazi official and he enlisted Charlotte into the Nazi Youth program. She killed her abusive father and served time in a juvenile detention center until World War II ended.
During her adolescence, she began collecting items from bombed-out homes and abandoned structures. In the post-war period, with the Communists in charge, she created a museum featuring household items as well as old phonographs and thousands of recording disks and cylinders.
After the Berlin Wall was built and, as she says, ended gay life in East Berlin, she recreated a popular gay bar in the basement of the museum, which served as a gathering place for members of the LGBTQ+ community.
During the time that Wright was meeting with her and writing the play, East German secret police (Stasi) files were released following the reunification of Germany. Those files revealed that in the early 1970s, she had in fact worked for them.
During this two-hour (with intermission) play, Charlotte narrates the story. But we meet Wright and his friend who told him about Charlotte, as well as her father, mother, Nazi officers, Stasi agents, friends, and many others who played a part in her life.
The bigger question that I Am My Own Wife poses is: How do we survive the unthinkable?
What does survival force us to consider?
How can we remain ourselves?
Charlotte did. Despite the Nazis and the Communists—neither group sympathetic to outliers—she remained herself; she lived her authentic life. (I am using the pronoun “she” because that is what Charlotte used.) Her Stasi files don’t reveal how she was encouraged to cooperate or what she actually revealed.
As you enter the theater, you see the terrific set by Britton Mark. It could be the outside entrance or the inside entrance to a large home with stone steps and pillars. The vines and flowers on either side are created to look like old phonograph horns in multiple colors.
Park plays Charlotte as more feminine-looking that she was, but that is not detrimental to the play. Wright has said that while Charlotte did not look particularly feminine (she had large hands), her manner was totally feminine. Park captures that.
But Park is instantaneously able to become the other characters with voices and mannerisms to match, from the southwest Wright to her friend Alfred, on whom she may have informed to the Stasi.
In making these transformation in both character and time (from before 1945 until the late 1990s), Park is aided by the lighting by Jennifer Fox and the sound by Kimberly S. O’Laughlin that features authentic-sounding reproductions of the old phonograph cylinders and wax discs that Charlotte loved.
Rebecca Matrínez has directed the play and Park with a skilled hand. If there is one small complaint, it is that Martínez could have paced the play slightly more briskly.
I Am My Own Wife is an absorbing play that will introduce you to an extraordinary life.
Afterwards, I did wonder if in our current society, the fine actor Jefferson Mays (who won a Tony from his 2003 performance of the role) would be accepted in the role; after all, he is not trans.
For tickets, visit longwharf.org or call 203-787-4282.