BY LOU BUTTINO
Hero, Heroine, Villain or Villainess?
Proud Mary Theatre’s inaugural production, “I Am My Own Wife” is a fascinating story of one of the most intriguing people in Twentieth century German history, Charlotte von Mahlsdorf. Born Lothar Berfelde, she proudly declared herself a transvestite from an early age and lived an incredible life of danger, rejection, intrigue, conspiracy and survival.
American Doug Wright wrote this multi-award (including the 2004 Pulitzer for Best Drama) winning play after visiting von Mahlsdorf at her Gründerzeit Museum (museum of everyday items primarily from the German Empire) and forming a relationship with her through an extensive series of face-to-face interviews. Von Mahlsdorf survived, and even flourished, when she really shouldn’t have and she did it multiple times, first in WW II Nazi Germany and then under the Communist East German regime. Most others of her “type” were actively persecuted, imprisoned or just “disappeared” along with other groups found unacceptable during those times. How did she do it?
There is some evidence that she used her intelligence and guile to do so. But there is also some other evidence of “darker” explanations for her survival. She was active in “cleaning” homes of Jews that had emigrated or been taken away, a function that was looked upon favorably by the Nazis. She added liberally to her personal collection of “historical treasures” in this way. There is extensive documentation of her collaboration with the East German Stasi secret police, with uncertainty as to whether it was coerced or voluntary. Even among LGBTQ (an abbreviation not in use at the time) circles there were detractors as some thought she was not really dedicated to her contemporaries and their alternative lifestyles but was motivated purely by ego. She also made comments against gay and lesbian reproduction that were very alienating.
One final potential black mark against her is the fact that she admitted killing her father, although she claimed justification in the fact that he was abusive to herself, her mother, and siblings.
So, the questions have continued about her true legacy.
There are no questions, however, about the quality of this challenging one-man show. Talented, remarkable David LaPage plays Charlotte with poise and clarity using a convincing German accent as well as subtle mannerisms and posture changes and effective use of inflections, pauses and cadence. I was sure I was seeing and hearing Charlotte. And, although a one man show, there are over 30 additional characters of various nationalities, ethnicities and accents, and Mr. LaPage pulls them all off without a hitch. David inhabited each character in a uniquely authentic way, avoiding the pitfall of many one-man shows with multiple characters that can sometimes deteriorate into robotic talking head deliverance of lines.
Director Robert Fuson put together a very nice collection of props, music and set to make the story, as told by Mr. LaPage unfold in an intimate comfortable, interesting way. The overall effect made the audience feel like they were right there in Charlotte’s museum or sitting room with her.
On one level, this is a story of a fascinating life and survival. On another level, a morality play about what this person, or any of us, would do to survive. Is the possibility that “Everyone collaborated to survive” justification for each of us to do so? Part of the story feels like a variation of the classic rise and fall of a potential hero. Because of a unique oddity, talent, success, event or narrative, someone becomes known to the public and as the story expands the person becomes famous and an icon. Once arrived there, that same person becomes a target for criticism, rumor and innuendo and, in the end, becomes infamous rather than famous. Is that what happened to Charlotte von Mahlsdorf. Who knows for sure?
What I do know is that this production of “I Am My Own Wife” is an engrossing and entertaining show that is a very good omen for great things to come from the talented team at Proud Mary Theatre. Go see it while you can.
“I Am My Own Wife” continues Thursday and Friday at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Spartanburg at 210 Henry Place and Nov. 10-11 at The Ninjaplex, 188 Kerns Ave., Greenville. All shows are at 8 p.m. Doors open at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $10 and available at the door (cash or credit card) or at http://www.proudmarytheatre.com.