An Astonishing Pairing of Jefferson Mays and I Am My Own Wife
We saw the play just two days before the Tonys at the Lyceum Theatre in New York and I was blown away by the actor's performance of real-life German transvestite Charlotte Von Mahlsdorf, who managed to survive both the Nazi onslaught and the following repressive Communist regime. On second view, the performance is still fresh and mesmerizing.
Jefferson Mays enters the stage as the famous antique dealer and collector, dressed in her trademark black dress with an elegant strand of pearls and orthopedic shoes. He gazes at the audience just for a moment and there is the tiniest flicker of a smile on his lips. He suddenly disappears and then returns through the French doors in the center of the stage, carrying a huge antique Edison phonograph with an enormous horn in the shape of a flower. His movements are stately and he has a wonderful, somewhat hazy gleam in his eyes. One can see Von Mahlsdorf has gone through many traumas in her life under both the Nazi and Communist administrations.
Charlotte finally speaks in superb broken English, but the rhythms of voice are fragile and there is a musical lilt to the inflection. It is a beautiful German accent, sometimes ending sentences with “yes?” or “ya” as many Germans speaking English speak. The first words to the audience are a delightful lecture on the phonograph and how Thomas Alva Edison invented the machine in July of 1877, in a marvelous mix of German and English. Mays' movements, voice and manner are spellbinding. He has the audience in the palm of his hand.
Jefferson Mays impersonates not only Charlotte but 40 other characters, including the playwright Doug Wright, a cross-dressing lesbian aunt and a brutal Nazi father. Even as the actor plays the playwright, his remarks are pertinent to Charlotte's life as he says, “I grew up gay in the Bible Belt. I can only begin to imagine what it must have been like during the Third Reich. The Nazis and then the Communists? It seems to me you’re an impossibility. You shouldn’t even exist.” And yet she did exist through all of those turbulent years.
Charlotte tells her fascinating story in a pseudo-documentary fashion. Born Lothar Berfelde, he lived through a cruel childhood with an abusive father whom he finally kills with a rolling pin while he slept. Lothar was sent to an institution by the German criminal court but was self-freed when the Soviets' bombs destroyed the building during the war. He was rounded up before a Nazi firing squad but given a last minute reprieve by a sympathetic SS man.
Charlotte relates living under the Soviet regime, with tales of the underground struggles of gays and lesbians during the Communist government. A very close friend was picked up by the Stasi secret police and thrown into prison for selling articles to American GIs. It appears he was the one who informed the secret police to save his prize collections of antiques.
I Am My Own Wife turns dark when the playwright reveals that Charlotte was probably some kind of informant for the Stasi secret police and this was the reason the East German police never attempted to jail her for the underground gay club. This is a very possible explanation for her surprising survival. Charlotte herself says the most important things in her life were “Museum, Furniture, Men. This is the order in which I have lived my life.” The saving of artifacts was more important than the saving of men in her estimation. As her aunt said to the young Charlotte, growing up as a transvestite, “Never forget that you’re living in the lion’s den. Sometimes, you must howl with the wolves.”
Jefferson Mays shows Charlotte as a symbol of contradiction, cover ups and finding the middle ground. He gives a penetrating performance of exceptional artistry. This is a tour de force performance. The writing is magnificent, sharp and full of ambivalence and doubt.
Set designer Derek McLane has used the same set that appeared on the Lyceum Theatre stage. The foreground is occupied by a stylish representation of von Mahlsdorf’s parlor and, looming against the back wall are carefully arranged overstuffed rows of antique furniture, gilded mirrors, ornate German cabinetry, porcelain dogs, tea tables, clocks and gramophones that reach up to the rafters of the stage. It is an impressive display of artifacts that Charlotte has collected over the years. David Lander's lighting is soft and very pertinent when certain articles are lighted as the transvestite is telling the story. Director Moises Kaufman has fashioned a performance from Jefferson Mays that is absolutely miraculous.
I Am My Own Wife plays at the Curran Theatre, 445 Geary Street, San Francisco through May 29th as part of the Best of Broadway series. Tickets can be obtained through ticketmaster.com, at all Ticketmaster Centers, or calling 415-512-7770. They can also be obtained at the Curran Theatre box office or the box office at the Orpheum Theatre, 1192 Market at 8th, San Francisco.
Coming next in the Best of Broadway series is the pre-Broadway premiere of The Mambo Kings, the Musical with David Alan Grier, Esai Morales, Albita and Justina Machado. It opens on May 24 and runs through June 19 at the Golden Gate Theatre.