The German Who Crossdressed Her Way Through WWII and Beyond
The story of Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, protagonist of I Am My Own Wife, is so incredible and strange that it upstages the play built around it. Born a boy named Lothar Berfelde in late 1920s Germany, von Mahlsdorf soon realized that she preferred to dress as a woman—though she didn't particularly identify as a trans woman—and did so through the Nazi regime, WWII, and Communist rule in East Berlin.
The extraordinariness of crossdressing during two stridently repressive regimes is only the first interesting thing about her story: Von Mahlsdorf also killed her abusive father with a rolling pin, escaped a youth prison when it was bombed by Russians, was an obsessive collector of antiques, and once moved an entire hotel bar—furniture, glasses, and all—into her basement as an act of both historic preservation and community-building for the underground East Berlin gay scene. Some of these "facts" are either unverifiable or disputed, and the veracity of her autobiography is a major component of the story.
In the early 1990s, American playwright Doug Wright was introduced to von Mahlsdorf's story and spent a decade interviewing her and trying to build a play around her story. The result, a solo show with more than 30 characters, which debuted in 2003 shortly after von Mahlsdorf's death, won a Pulitzer Prize and a Tony Award. Nick Garrison (perhaps best known for his title role in Hedwig and the Angry Inch, which toured from Seattle to Chicago to the UK) takes on this tumult of personalities and accents and genders with appropriate energy and physicality—though with differing levels of success.
At times, I Am My Own Wife is frenetic and funny, as in a translation scene where Garrison plays Wright (who wrote himself into the show), von Mahlsdorf, and an unenthusiastic translator mediating the conversation. At other times, he dives deeply into a mood, delivering von Mahlsdorf's soliloquies dreamily, almost robotically. She may have been autistic, and her storytelling cadences that sound rehearsed, as if she tells each story the same way every time, reinforce that. Garrison's German accent is decent but not perfect, which seems odd for someone who played Hedwig.
His physical presence is superb, though. When confronted with uncomfortable questions, von Mahlsdorf delicately fingers her pearl necklace, centering herself and smiling a little before answering. When she's touching her things, objects collected over a lifetime and showcased in her home museum, her affection for each piece is palpable. Her mix of naiveté and lust for life is charming and believable, best on display when she talks about visiting West Berlin's gay-bar scene after so many years in East Berlin; she reads detailed descriptions from a guidebook of bars and their assorted entertainments with a matter-of-fact, childlike, and insanely funny tone of wonder.
Also lovely is Jennifer Zeyl's set, a nice living room with dark wood furniture, a crystal chandelier, and grand double doors, the back wall of which is made to look like a portion of the Berlin Wall, with graffiti that reads "ART SURVIVES." A big reveal of the treasures hiding behind this wall is a visual delight.
It seems odd to say this about a one-person play, but I Am My Own Wife (directed by Seattle Rep artistic director Jerry Manning) lacks something like chemistry. On the night I attended, it seemed as though Garrison was blanking on a few lines—or perhaps just playing Wright as stumbly and forgetful? The characters are well rendered individually, and I Am My Own Wife definitely has an emotional heart. But the show lacks some cohesion, some polish that would weave the outlandish pieces of this outlandish life into a unified whole.