KPBS AIRDATE: August 19, 2005
It’s hard to say which is more astonishing – the plot or the performance. Charlotte von Mahlsdorf was a real-life East German transvestite who survived, on her own terms, through the Nazi and communist regimes. She and scores of other characters are brilliantly portrayed by Jefferson Mays, a graduate of UCSD, for whom the role in “I Am My Own Wife” was created.
Doug Wright’s provocative play premiered at the La Jolla Playhouse in 2001, as a Page to Stage production, a work in progress. When it opened on Broadway in 2004, it garnered a Tony Award and the Pulitzer for Best Play, and Mays won the Tony for Best Performance. In the interim, the show has grown, and the performance has expanded. It was by far the most subtle, understated, virtuoso piece of acting I’d ever seen. It’s a tad broader now, but no less remarkable. Mays plays the demure and fastidious Charlotte, born in 1928 as Lothar Berfelde, a boy whose lesbian aunt gave him the official family go-ahead when she offered him a book on transvestism. Lothar may or may not have murdered his abusive father. He may or may not have been an inch from death in a youthful encounter with an SS officer; as an adult, he/she may or may not have informed on a beloved friend when the communists took over. The beauty of the piece is that, though it’s based in fact, and on Wright’s extensive interviews with Charlotte, it leaves us wondering, just as it did the playwright. So much so, that Wright wove himself and his uncertainty into the piece. He figures prominently as the gay, German-learning Texan who’s trying to get a grip on his elusive subject and her slippery stories. Charlotte died in 2002, so maybe the full truth will never be known. And that’s part of the delicious enigma of it all.
Meanwhile, center stage, under the marvelous direction of Moisés Kaufman, Mays is a wonder, switching from convincing German phrases to stumbling American German attempts, and in a breathless, breathtaking moment, conducting an international press conference with Charlotte, each insistent question fired off by someone with a different accent, from a different country. All this took place after the files of the Stasi, the communist secret police, were made public. Then the discrepancies emerged. But could the documents have been falsified? Or did Charlotte re-invent her life? All we know for sure is that she had an extensive in-home museum displaying late 19th century furnishings, including innumerable clocks and gramophones. In that same house, behind blackened windows, she held parties for the gay and lesbian community. A daring life, a dazzling narrative. The crafty set, ingenious lighting and simple costume keep the focus where it belongs – on the spellbinding story and bravura performance.
©2005 Patté Productions Inc.