Michael Stebbins stands on stage in black — a shapeless dress, stockings, and orthopedic laced shoes, with a square headscarf hiding his hair. It could almost be a wimple and he a nun teaching at a parochial school but for the pearls. But no, he is bringing to life the character of Charlotte Von Mahlsdorf, a German transvestite who survived both the Nazis and the subsequent East German communist stasi. It’s an unforgettable image in a remarkable performance about “the most singular, eccentric individual the cold war ever produced.”
Born Lothar Berfelde, Mahlsdorf grew up in the period between the two world wars. At fifteen, he was taken by his mother to visit his aunt where he came upon her closetful of feminine dresses. While trying one on, he was discovered, and, instead of provoking a beating or shocked reaction, his aunt was wearily amused and declared that nature had played a joke on them both, it appeared, because while he wanted to dress in women’s dresses she only wanted to dress as a man. From that moment on, and with the mentorship of this lesbian aunt, he began to live as a transvestite. As Charlotte, s/he narrowly escaped being executed by a Nazi firing squad and continued to defy two toxic regimes, finally becoming something of a cause célèbre.
Playwright Doug Wright won a Pulitzer Prize in 2004 and several other awards including a Tony for I Am My Own Wife. He fashioned the one-man show by inserting himself as a character seeking to find the real life Charlotte. His fascination for his subject and his delight in the relationship that developed between the older Charlotte and himself, as a young gay man carving out his own life in New York, provide the storyline of the play.
Stebbins plays not only Charlotte and the interviewer/narrator “Doug” but Doug’s friend John, who travels with him to Germany as “translator” for the project – and several others besides. Stebbins moves swiftly back and forth between Doug’s English, his lead character’s own German-accented English, to Charlotte speaking German, to John butchering German with his bad ear for language, and finally to Charlotte’s cutting through the mess as she rolls her eyes and suggests they all continue in English. It’s one of the great laughs and virtuosic aspects of the performance. Kudos go to Stebbins and Nancy Krebs, the dialect coach, for all the German. Glückwunsch!
A great strength about the central portrayal is its understated quality, both in the writing and the playing. There is nothing the least camp or flamboyant about Charlotte. The way his feet move across the floor as if his hip is hurting and his shoes are a little too tight, the way he holds his hands still and carefully sculpted as if they had been dipped in hot wax, Stebbins moves with a restrained dignity, even a primness.
Indeed, though something of a curiosity, Charlotte was nonetheless an old- fashioned girl. She loved collecting things, old things. She had somewhere above 1500 radio tubes from Edison’s era. She loved period furniture, as realized so well in the set by Elizabeth Jenkins McFadden, which features an old gramophone with its large amplifying horn, a couple of heavily carved wooden chairs and side tables, and a great Biedermeier highboy. In the play, the character reveals how she loves not only the ornateness and yes, even the fussiness of these old world objects, these pieces that others have rejected as out of fashion. She loves them, perhaps, especially because such things need care, need dusting.
At one point, carefully, Charlotte lifts out of a box miniatures of a chair, a table with an attached cherry pitter, and a Biedermeier highboy. It’s as if these odd relics represent her life in microcosm, and she turns them over, reflecting quietly. Director Tony Tsendeas allows this business, like so much in the play, to unfold slowly, and the pace, so unusual in a performance these days, proceeds like a very subdued though satisfying conversation.
In fact, some could say this play lacks fireworks or a sufficient dramatic build found in traditional plays. The significant events in Charlotte’s life — the near death experience before the firing squad, the way she spirited the illegal items from the gay cabaret theatre into her basement under the very noses of the regime that had shut all gay gathering places down, and perhaps especially the way she may have eluded imprisonment under communism, all gets rolled over in the dangerously daunting time of almost two hours in which Wright demands his one man to hold the stage. But the playwright has intentionally constructed a dramatic “maze,” a pattern of digressions and avoidances that seem part of Charlotte’s character, intentionally leaving many unanswered questions, such as to whether she did or did not sell out her friend in East Germany that sent him to prison.
I Am My Own Wife
Closes November 17, 2013
Rep Stage at the
Howard Community College
10901 Little Patuxent Parkway
2 hours with 1 intermission
Tickets: $35 – $40
Wednesdays thru Sundays
Lighting designer Jay Herzog has worked with McFadden to use one of the four frames hanging on the wall to project scene changes in scrolled lettering as used in old silent screen titles. While I liked the idea, the device itself felt hung too high above the cosy “music box” quality of Charlotte’s world as otherwise-realized by McFadden to feel sufficiently integrated.
Rep Stage, Howard Community College’s professional theatre in residence, continues its twenty-first season with this play. It’s a mature and worthy production and set in a marvelously comfortable black box theatre space in a jewel of a performing arts center. With Columbia’s waterfront restaurants so near, it all makes for a marvelous evening. The show closes November 17th so book now to avoid missing this stellar performance.
I Am My Own Wife by Douglas Wright . Directed by Tony Tsendeas . Featuring Michael Stebbins . Produced by Rep Stage . Reviewed by Susan Galbraith