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Theater Review: The fascinating story of Charlotte von Mahlsdorf

The fascinating story of Charlotte von Mahlsdorf

In pre-WW II Germany, there was not a lot of space for trans people. In fact, the name hadn’t been invented.

They were known as a form of transvestite (cross dresser). For a young trans woman to survive the Nazi regime, then in East Berlin to cope with the German Communist secret police (called ‘the Stasi’), was a remarkable feat.  

And, yet, that is what Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, born Lothar Berfelde, did. 

“I Am My Own Wife” is Doug Wright’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play about Charlotte and her life.  Based on his own interviews with her, and brought to Broadway after her death in 2002, the play has won every major award available to an American Drama.  It ran at Lyric on the Plaza from March 29 through April 9.

Directed by Michael Baron, Lyric’s Artistic Director, “I Am My Own Wife” is an intimate window into a broad and complicated life. This woman had to negotiate, usually on her own, a life under regimes that were motivated in their persecution of ‘otherness’ — and Charlotte is exuberantly ‘other.’

There are more than 30 characters in the play, including Charlotte’s lesbian aunt and the SS officers who threatened her in her youth and the lover she (perhaps reluctantly) turned over to the Stasi for smuggling, and Wright himself. All of these characters are played by one actor.

Matthew Alvin Brown is a very well-respected Oklahoma City actor; his list of credits is long and substantial. This play, however, is a challenge. It’s two hours long, and every single word comes from just one mouth. The actor must convey, without change of costume and without any special effects, the human reality of over 30 people. He must make them real to Charlotte, who tells this story, so they can be real to us. 

Using the old-fashioned museum-style set, designed by Katie Sullivan, as a resource for triggering and explaining memories, Brown let us inside the life and memories of a woman assigned male at birth who killed her abusive father, was sent to reform school, was threatened by Nazi storm troopers, ran a gay (LGBTQ) club in Communist East Berlin, was recruited by the secret police (Stasi), and was eventually awarded Germany’s highest civilian honor for running an unlicensed museum. 

This is an incredibly demanding play; Brown has the job of portraying all of the people Charlotte remembers and keeping the audience engaged for the whole two hours of the play. In the hands of a less-talented actor or director, the play could be a dull evening of “talking head” drama. To really function as a piece of dramatic art, it needs the whole focus of the one actor for the whole time as many people filtered through one mind. 

Brown rose to the challenge with subtlety and craft. Using accent, posture, stride, gesture, expression — every element an actor has available to him — he painted the huge palette of Charlotte’s remembered life across the stage at Lyric. He leaves us with questions: Was she in league with the Stasi? Or did she go along with them the way everyone did, to save themselves from arrest and persecution? Was she living in the von Mahlsdorf manor, the side of her museum of late 19th century culture, with permission, or was she squatting there and no one cared enough to evict her? Did she self-promote out of ego, or to preserve the relics of past German glory, and are those different? 

For those of you who saw the show, none of this is a surprise. For those who missed it, I am so sorry for your loss.