Compelling ‘I Am My Own Wife’ at CPH
‘I AM MY OWN WIFE, now on stage at the Cleveland Play House, opened in New York on December 3, 2003 and ran until October 31, 2004, having played 26 previews and 361 performances. Audiences and critics were so enamored with the show that it garnered the 2004 Pulitzer Prize and the Tony Award for Best Play. It starred Jefferson Mays, who received Tony Award recognition as Best Actor for his portrayal.
On the surface, the story of “I AM MY OWN WIFE” is straightforward: a European follows a lifelong pursuit for sexual freedom and antique furniture. But, that’s only the surface of what the play is all about. It’s the story of a real person who defied the odds to outwit the Nazis during World War II and deal with the communist control of East Germany during the era of the Berlin Wall. That would have been an achievement for most people, but Charlotte von Mahlsdorf was a man who lived his life as a woman. Dressed in high-heeled sandals and a “good” suit, Charlotte collected furnishings from the Grunderzeit for half a century. In the Third Reich, Mahlsdorf "rescued" pieces from Jewish deportees; in the German Democratic Republic, Charlotte protected "bourgeois cultural assets" from the Stasi. She saved a long-existing East German gay-lesbian bar from destruction and moved the contents into the basement of her house/museum where it existed for many years.
The story does not center on Charlotte’s sexuality, but her sexuality is part of the tale. It intensifies the story. Her being transgendered adds to the intrigue.
It is interesting to note that reviews and publicity for the play use the words “transgendered” and “cross dressing” interchangeably. They are not the same. (Let me put my psychology professor hat on here.) Someone who is transgendered (sometimes referred to as “transsexual”) believes they have been born into the wrong body. In von Mahlsdorf’s case, early in his life he realized that he should have been a female. So he led his life as a woman. With present day scientific advancements, von Mahlsdorf would have been able to go through hormone replacement therapy and operations to remove his male organs and transforming himself into a female. But that was not possible in his era. If von Mahlsdorf was a crossdresser, he would have liked to dress in the traditional clothing of a person of the opposite sex but not desire to be that sex. Research shows that most crossdressers are mainly heterosexual. von Mahlsdorf openly declared herself to be a lesbian.
Though the play is acted by one man, over 30 people are portrayed. We watch as a member of the German Secret Service, an aunt, a father, a barmaid, a Russian official, a male prostitute, American soldiers, West German officials, a prison guard, a political dissident, a tv performer, several neo-nazis, a TV interviewer, reporters and a psychiatrist interact with Charlotte.
The first act is exposition...explaining Charlotte to us, laying the background as to who she is. One question that surely arises is whether Charlotte was able to stay alive by being a collaborator. That’s the duty of the second act, poking holes in her story. Was she a true innocent who lucked out or a master manipulator? Was she, like her artifacts, unusual enough to treasure and preserve or were they and she well hidden, below the surface, and capable of living on through duplicity?
Mark Nelson portrays Charlotte and all the characters with ease. He switches roles seamlessly. He underplays Charlotte in such a way that it allows us to question whether she is real or is playing a game with us. Whether she is editing her life so we accept her as being what she tells us she is, or, whether she is displaying catlike wariness intended to allow herself to slip into our hearts and minds and ignore the inconsistencies in her story.
Nelson beguiles the audience with sweet tales and harrowing ones as the character recounts her father's brutality and the child's violent retaliation, the experience of nearly getting shot by Nazi guards as a teenager, and the constant harassment by the Stasi, the East German secret police.
Nelson’s performance, effectively directed by Anders Cato, is remarkable for its establishment of distance and boundaries. With a Mona Lisa-like grin, Nelson establishes a character who can barely suppress delight in her own uniqueness and an apparent willingness to lie openly and frequently. Nelson’s von Mahlsdorf enchants us while she's reeling us in.
When she speaks, it's in German or an accented English, often with a "yes?" at the end, as if verifying that she has been heard and understood. The grin is shy, the gaze opaque. She appears comfortable amid a vast collection of antiques which surround her in backwall pictures and miniatures which have been woven expertly into an impressive set by scenic designer Hugh Landwehr.
Those who like their dramas to have a conclusive ending will be disappointed with Wright’s script. We are left with the question of who, really, is this person? How much of a hero or traitor she was is open to speculation. The author lets you take your own guesses. It makes for good driving home talk.
Capsule Judgment ‘I AM MY OWN WIFE’ is fascinating theatre. Nelson’s portrayal is excellent. The Cleveland Play House should be proud of this production and audiences should flock to see it.