I expected Doug Wright’s play I Am My Own Wife to be a different kind of Anne Frank story, one in which the heroine survives by hiding in plain sight. Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, the play’s historical center, was a German transvestite who lived in east Berlin from the 1930s through the 1980s, a time when that city was controlled by regimes that killed people who deviated from cultural norms. Charlotte deviated in a big way, but they didn’t kill her, and that heroic survival in the face of oppression would be the gist of the play, I expected.
Instead I saw a play about Doug Wright’s conversations with Charlotte von Mahlsdorf and his reactions to what she said about her life. The character Doug Wright describes himself as a gay man who grew up in the midwest, where hetero-normative attitudes rule, so he is understandably enthralled with von Mahlsdorf’s fidelity to her transvestite identity. “You’re teaching me a history I never knew I had!”he tells her in a smitten schoolboy’s tone that I’m not sure how to take, since it comes from a character whose name is the same as the playwright’s.
Should I see them as the same guy? Does the playwright want me to assume that he’s the character? I don’t think so. But the irony required to separate the playwright from the character is missing from the MET production. Most of the time it feels like an earnest celebration of Charlotte’s resilience, offered as a form of encouragement to gays who live in places that don’t recognize them.
That’s a worthy goal, and Charlotte’s story is certainly inspiring. Lothar Berfelde, as she was known in childhood, became Charlotte von Mahlsdorf after discovering a closet full of unused women’s clothing at the home of her aunt Luise, who preferred to dress like a man. To thwart her femininity, her father made her join the Hitler Youth, an organization devoted to making boys into good Nazi men. Charlotte’s refusal to embrace the ideals and activities of Hitler Youth, which included the humiliation, segregation, and extermination of homosexuals, incited violent rages in her father, whom Charlotte eventually beat to death with a gravy ladle. For that crime, she was sentenced to juvenile prison, but the Allied forces that took control of Berlin in 1945 released her into the chaos of the fallen city, which she sifted for relics of ordinary lives that Nazism had demolished even as the Russians assembled the machinery of Stalinism.
All of that before she turned eighteen.
The play confronts conventional ideas about identity in part by asking one actor to play all the roles —35 in total. In this production, that actor is Eric Jones, whose remarkable capacity to alter the tone of his voice and assume different accents makes the character-switching easy to follow. All of those characters wear Charlotte’s clothes —black shoes, tights, skirt, blouse, apron, and head scarf, and a triple strand of pearls—and seeing male characters dressed that way is a kind of poke in the ribs at first, but the clothing quickly ceases to look like women’s wear: it’s just clothing. That lost distinction may suggest something about our preconceptions, but it probably would have bothered Charlotte, because she wanted to dress like a woman —and Wright-the-character wanted her to. “I need to believe Lothar (Charlotte) survived those two most repressive regimes in a fucking pair of heels,” he tells his friend.
Here again I think I’m supposed to see the playwright gazing at me over the character’s head, acknowledging that if the person responsible for redacting Charlotte’s history operates under that need, the ‘history’ he produces won’t be what most of us consider history at all, but rather something more like story. The playwright and I might even pause for a moment to consider the fact that every history is created in that way, whether its makers acknowledge that need or not.
I AM MY OWN WIFE
Closes August 24, 2014
Maryland Ensemble Theatre
31 West Patrick Street
1 hour: 40 minutes
Details and Tickets
“As queer people, there’s a lot to our history that doesn’t come out,”said Austin Beach, Executive Director of The Frederick Center, during a talk-back after the performance,“and this shows that we can survive anything.”
Maybe it does, but it shows more than that as well. The only time Jones dresses as a man is when he plays Alfred for a few minutes at the start of Act 2 —Alfred, Charlotte’s friend, perhaps her lover, whom she denounces to the Soviet police to protect her museum of antiquities. In that scene he’s writing her a letter from prison, telling her how pleased he is that she followed his advice to give them his name. When that scene ends, Jones has already become another character while he’s removing Alfred’s clothes, beneath which he was wearing Charlotte’s clothing all along, so that moment of betrayal is ushered past us in the flutter of a costume change.
Wright the character may need to believe that Charlotte survived the Nazis and the communists in a fucking pair of heels, and Wright the playwright seems attracted to that vision, too; but the playwright also wants to acknowledge that all history is written by prejudiced people, which is to say by ordinary people. If this production left a little more space between the playwright and the character, we might see him encouraging us to write history ourselves.
I Am My Own Wife, by Doug Wright. Directed by Rebecca O’Leary . Featuring Eric Jones. Produced by Maryland Ensemble Theatre. Reviewed by Mark Dewey