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Charlotte’s web
I Am My Own Wife is a blissful marriage

You can’t go wrong with a little black dress and a strand of pearls, and Jefferson Mays doesn’t in Doug Wright’s Pulitzer-winning I Am My Own Wife. Mays won a Tony for his chameleonic turn in this "one-woman show performed by a man" that was inspired by German transvestite and collector Charlotte von Mahlsdorf (born Lothar Berfelde), who survived both the Third Reich and the East German Communists while wearing a dress. Mays doesn’t just embody the 65-year-old Mahlsdorf whom Wright met in 1993; he also morphs into 34 other personae, including the subject’s brutal father and liberating aunt, a ramped-up TV talk-show host, and the Texas-born playwright himself. This exquisitely crafted and staged theater piece not only introduces a true (if possibly not always truthful) eccentric and tells a compelling tale; it proves that, when it comes to a good story, veracity takes a back seat to thrall.

Quills author Wright was alerted to Charlotte by a journalist friend working in Berlin. An impassioned collector of furniture from the Gründerzeit period of the 1890s, she had also preserved in her basement an entire Weimar cabaret, the only one to escape the Communist ax. For this she garnered a medal and a fair amount of press. Having toured her Gründerzeit Museum and written to beg an audience, Wright visited his subject several times, eventually amassing 500 pages of transcribed taped interviews with Charlotte (who preferred to unfold her story late at night while hoisting a yogurt in the cabaret). To the playwright she was a "bona fide gay hero" whom he was eager to immortalize.

But then the muse called upon the dramatist to assist her in getting hold of her Stasi file: a copy for him and a copy for her. The contents were incriminating. To protect her collection and her unusual lifestyle, Charlotte, it appeared, had collaborated with the secret police and betrayed a friend and fellow collector. Although disturbed, Wright did not wish to inform on her by way of a play. As the dramatist explains in the show, "I need to believe in her stories as much as she does! I need to believe . . . that Lothar Berfelde navigated a path between the two most repressive regimes the Western world has ever known — the Nazis and the Communists — in a pair of heels. I need to believe that things like that . . . can happen in the world."

It was only when a friend suggested that the blocked writer insert himself into the work and write about his "love affair" with Charlotte, warts and all, that I Am My Own Wife emerged, at its center not an icon but a spellbinding enigma, German-accented, soft-spoken, unflappable, and looking, in her pearls and men’s shoes, like a more secularly accessorized novice from The Sound of Music. Under Moisés Kaufman’s expert direction, Mays’s contained yet flirtatious Charlotte makes her first entrance, opens her mouth to speak, then scoots back off stage to return with one of the Edison gramophones that were among her passions. After lecturing us on the device and producing a painting of "the dog Nipper, His Master’s Voice," she plays a scratchy snippet of an old recording. An apt beginning for a play that is, as the writer has observed, about the nicks in history and "the process of recording."

If you were looking for a human tape deck, you’d get a top-notch model in Mays. A rare mimic and a polyglot of body language, he creates a Charlotte prim and precise (albeit attracted by S&M) who speaks in metronomic cadences and handles miniature reproductions of her cherished objets with a lover’s tenderness. Yet with her flashing eyes and set mouth, she’s capable of fierceness. And if the actor can’t actually be his own wife, he sure can be his own co-conversationalist, turning on a dime, a posture, an accent. Adding to the magic is Derek McLane’s deceptively plain set: behind a papered wall, another chocked with Gründerzeit memorabilia gauzily blinks, its scattered gramophone horns lighting up at the first-act curtain like illumined flowers.

Charlotte von Mahlsdorf moved to Sweden in the wake of the controversy over her Stasi file. She died, in 2002, of a heart attack, "alone in a garden of gramophone horns," while on a visit home to her beloved museum. In the play, Wright tells of receiving, a few days after news of her death, an aged photograph sent by Charlotte. An apt metaphor for her life, it pictures jug-eared, 10-year-old Lothar, on a bench in a zoo, posed between two lions. He has an arm around each; their paws are in his lap, but the beasts look far from benign. After giving Mays the standing O his performance deserves, the audience, departing the theater, is confronted by twin blow-ups of this image. I have experienced many exhilarating coups de théâtre; this is my first coup de lobby.

The performance reviewed here took place after the Phoenix’s Arts & Entertainment section had gone to press.

Issue Date: April 22 - 28, 2005
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