Regional Reviews: New Jersey
I Am My Own Wife
also see Bob's review of Summer and Smoke
It is 1992, and Texan John Marx, a news magazine correspondent friend of playwright Wright happens upon von Mahlsdorf. She has turned her home into a museum of antiques and artifacts dating back to the nineteenth century. Amid the period furniture are any number of clocks and a cylinder phonograph. She has also rescued and reconstructed in the basement of her home a Weimar Republic gay bar which, under the oppressive former Communist regime, she had transformed into a prideful gathering place for gays. Marx telephones Wright suggesting that von Mahlsdorf would make a wonderful subject for a play. Wright is taken with the antique dealer and her survival and brave lifestyle through Nazi and Communists regimes, openly living as a homosexual and transvestite.
As Wright learns more details about von Mahlsdorf during an extended series of interviews, his inspiration and admiration only grows. He learns that Von Mahlsdorf was born Lothar Berfelde in 1928. At the age of thirteen, Lothar knew that he wanted to live as a woman. A lesbian aunt observed Lothar trying on one of her dresses and gave him encouragement ("Nature has played a joke on us. You should have been a girl, and I should have been a man."). Lothar, who had been forced to join the Hitler Youth by his father, beat his father to death after seeing the brutal man assault his mother while in a drunken rage. Lothar was sent to a reformatory for his crime, barely surviving the war when he was shot by the Nazis.
In 1994, Wright became disillusioned when he obtained access to the records of the Stasi (the secret police of Communist East Germany) and discovered von Mahlsdorf's dossier. It revealed that she had provided information to them on the activities of her associates on an ongoing basis. Although von Mahlsdorf minimized her complicity (she claimed that a confederate had told her to protect herself after he had been caught red handed in an illegal transaction), in Wright's eyes, Charlotte von Mahlsdorf was now a tarnished survivor rather than an inspiring saint. However, in the end, it is difficult to evaluate von Mahlsdorf, and impossible to know just how much of her account of her past is true and how much is either fantasy or prevarication.
Mark Nelson gives a beautifully controlled performance as von Mahlsdorf, totally capturing the housefrau persona of Charlotte. Fleshing out descriptions of her that had been provided by Wright, Nelson's 65 or so year old von Mahlsdorf is welcoming, gentle, proper, softly spoken and somewhere between coyly feminine and sexually neuter in her mannerisms and dress. By always retaining her centeredness with an easy confidence, Nelson makes a strong case for Charlotte's sanctity. Employing a variety of accents and styles in thirty or so additional roles, Nelson smoothly transitions among them. In keeping with his belief in Charlotte, Nelson's Doug Wright ultimately appears less skeptical of her than Jefferson Mays' Wright did in the play's Off-Broadway premiere production. Fully in tune with this vision is director Anders Cato as he places a confirming patina about the final visual motif, which is von Mahlsdorf's final statement that she held mastery over the dangerous regimes under which she lived.
With a valid variation in emphasis from its original production, Mark Nelson and director Anders Cato have lovingly brought I Am My Own Wife to George Street. It is well worth a visit whether or not one has seen a previous incarnation.
I Am My Own Wife continues performances (Tues.-Sat. 8 p.m./ Sun. 2 p.m. & 7 p.m. except 2/11 at 7 p.m.) through February 11, 2007 at the George Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick, NJ 08901. Box Office: 732-246-7717; online www.GSPonline.org.
I Am My Own Wife by Doug Wright; directed by Anders Cato