I Am My Own Wife

Also see Ann's review of Talking Heads

Mark Saturno
The Pittsburgh Public Theatre production of Doug Wright's Pulitzer Prize winning I Am My Own Wife is a fascinating one. The story is engrossing, Mark Saturno's performance is compelling, and Beowulf Boritt's set design is extraordinary. Based on interviews and correspondence between the playwright and Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, I Am My Own Wife tells how von Mahlsdorf, born Lothar Berfelde, survived in Nazi and Communist-controlled Germany living as a transvestite. Telling the story in mostly her own words, Saturno portrays the German museum owner as well as dozens of other characters who played a part in her life, plus the playwright and others who facilitated Wright's discovery of and meetings with von Mahlsdorf.

Lothar Berfelde was born March 18, 1928 in Berlin. Young Berfelde lived through a difficult childhood, escaping the horrors of an abusive father by listening to music on his gramophone. From an early age he was compelled to dress as a female and was encouraged by a lesbian aunt and educated by a gift from her: the book Die Transvestiten by Magnus Hirschfeld. As an adult living openly as a cross-dresser, Berfelde opened the Gründerzeit Museum in a restored house and took the name of Charlotte von Mahlsdorf. The museum displayed the treasures of this collector of gramophones and musical cylinders, clocks and antique furniture. Von Mahlsdorf received notoriety in Germany for her restoration efforts, but as the fabric of her story thins, it becomes clear that she may not have been completely forthcoming in telling her story.

Costumed modestly in all black, save a string of pearls, Saturno uses changes in body language and voice as he quickly transforms into other characters. It is always clear when he playing von Mahlsdorf, with a distinct but clear German accent, meek voice, and a slightly hunched and drawn in physical carriage. For other characters, he varies his movements and chances the inflection and volume of his voice. Through Wright's script, it is always quickly known what character is speaking. Saturno succeeds in creating many characters, and is charming and slightly mysterious as von Mahlsdorf. He consistently makes the quick transitions, never letting the brisk pace lag. It's an amazing and accomplished performance, well guided by the direction of Jesse Berger.

Boritt's set on the O'Reilly thrust stage is on a raised platform with a floor made of coated tiles which are shiny black or transparent, depending on the lighting (lighting is by Peter West). Various pieces of antique furniture are positioned in a way to appear to be partially submerged, as if bobbing in water when the water froze into black ice. A back wall of panels is also periodically lit to show items appearing behind the surface. And if you take the time (and you should - during intermission or after the show) to walk around the set, you will see many, many vintage items arranged under the tiles of the floor. It's a unique set, and can be a source of conversation if you consider the possible symbolic elements of such a design.

Wright's interest in gay history led to what he called a "treasure trove": the life of Charlotte von Mahlsdorf. Constructing the play as not just a telling of von Mahlsdorf's story, but also the story of Wright interviewing and meeting her, allowed him to introduce other outside information which presents to the viewer a story in pieces both above and below the surface - we can each decide what to make of it all.

I Am My Own Wife continues at the O'Reilly Theater through May 14. For performance and ticket information, call 412-316-1600 or visit www.ppt.org or the box office.

Photo: Ric Evans

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-- Ann Miner

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