“I am my own wife,” Lothar Berfelde told his mother when she explained he would one day get married. Lothar would in fact become Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, a transvestite who founded the Grunderzeit Museum and survived both the Nazi and Soviet regimes.
Doug Wright’s Pulitzer Prize-winning, one-man play I Am My Own Wife is based on the playwright’s interviews and correspondence with von Mahlsdorf in the 1990s. It is a story worth telling. Von Mahlsdorf’s life as a transvestite in East Germany spanned two of the most repressive totalitarian regimes in history. She escaped her abusive father by murdering him, and her teenage job clearing furniture from homes of exiled Jews led to a career as an antique collector while running an underground Weimar club on the side.
Brendan Hanson in I Am My Own Wife. Photograph © Daniel J. Grant
All of this is conveyed in a 90-minute monologue – given a tour de force performance by Brendan Hanson in this Black Swan State Theatre Company production. Dressed in a black skirt and hair scarf, Hanson draws on a full spectrum of accents and subtle body language to delineate more than 30 different characters. It is an impressive and engrossing demonstration of the power of storytelling as family members, soldiers, international journalists and the central characters of von Mahlsdorf and Wright are brought to life.
Director Joe Lui’s sympathetic sound design includes a warm electronic soundscape, the sound of distant bombs and snatches of cabaret playing through the various gramophones, polyphones, pianolas in von Mahlsdorf’s museum collection, items that ‘brought such joy’ during her childhood.
Hanson’s von Mahlsdorf is softly spoken, with big eyes and a sideways tilt of the head. Wright is given an American drawl and voice laden with emotion, becoming increasingly agitated as he discovers that his subject wasn’t as heroic as he had presumed – von Mahlsdorf was an informant and betrayed close friends to the secret police. The precarious balance of her life is depicted in Cherish Marrington’s set design with its stepped flooring and shifting wall panels.
Photograph © Daniel J. Grant
The play becomes increasingly about the nature of biography and the challenge of documenting history, an issue German artists in particular have been grappling with since the fall of the Berlin wall – but apparently new to Wright’s character. “I am curating her now,” he says to a friend. “I need to decide what to edit and what to preserve.”
As von Mahlsdorf’s complexity becomes more apparent, Wright’s naivety and idealism is also revealed. He struggles to write the truth about her, saying: “But I need to believe in her stories as much as she does! I need to believe that Lothar Berfelde navigated a path between the Nazis and the Communists in a pair of heels.”
Towards the end, the play loses momentum as the focus becomes as much about Wright as von Mahlsdorf. Thankfully von Mahlsdorf has the last word, using furniture as a metaphor for the complexity involved in being a human: “A missing balustrade, a broken spindle, these are proof of its history… a record of living.”
I Am My Own Wife plays until October 29.