Back and Forth

A play that features a solo actor is always risky. The audience’s whole experience rides on one performer. Can they hold the crowd’s attention? Can they pull it off? 

The answer in Long Wharf Theatre’s new production of I Am My Own Wife is an emphatic yes. In the role of “Berlin’s most famous transvestite,” Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, as well as 19 other characters and pre-recorded voices, actor Mason Alexander Park is versatile, convincing and refreshingly understated. As Park (who uses they/them pronouns) shifts from one role to another, sometimes within the space of a single breath, their performance feels effortless. The drama isn’t about whether this lone actor can make it through a two-hour performance unscathed; it’s about Charlotte’s story itself.

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And drama there is. Born in 1928 in Berlin as a boy named Lothar Berfelde, the real Charlotte von Mahlsdorf was a teenager during World War II. Though she hadn’t yet taken on female pronouns, she was already experimenting with dressing in women’s clothing. She speculated in her autobiography, I Am My Own Wife: The True Story of Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, that when she and a friend were caught out after curfew in their mothers’ clothing and arrested, they were released rather than detained and punished “due to the officer’s assumption that they were two ‘rascals’ playing a joke,” according to an entry in the Global Encyclopedia of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer (LGBTQ) History. But von Mahlsdorf’s gender identity was far from a passing lark. In fact, she boldly lived as a queer person throughout the war and the Communist era that followed in East Berlin.

Her other claim to fame was the creation of the Gründerzeit Museum in a ruined Berlin mansion. While working for a furniture dealer, von Mahlsdorf began to collect 19th-century pieces from the period known as the Gründerzeit, then added items from the estate of her aunt and furniture taken from the homes of Jews who had been deported. She later said she’d attempted to return some of those pieces after the war. For 35 years, the encyclopedia reports, von Mahlsdorf gave public tours of the museum, the basement of which also served as a gathering place for the Homosexuelle Interessengemeinschaft Berlin (HIB), or Homosexual Interest Group, Berlin. In 1992, three years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the German government honored von Mahlsdorf with the Federal Cross of Merit, but shortly afterward her reputation was tarnished by claims and suspicions that she had been an informant for the Stasi (the East German secret police). She closed her museum in 1995 and moved to Sweden, where she lived until her death in 2002.

I Am My Own Wife dramatizes these incidents and others—a confrontation with an abusive father, a moment of gender recognition, a clandestine meeting with American soldiers—as it finds its own route through von Mahlsdorf’s multi-layered, sometimes confounding story. Wright glues the disparate pieces together by recounting his own journey as he visits Charlotte for a play he’s writing—presumably, the play we’re watching—and learns her story. This device probably felt more novel back in 2004, when the play won a Pulitzer Prize.

Notes in the Long Wharf program written by director Rebecca Martinez and Patrick Dunn, executive director of the New Haven Pride Center, pitch the play as an inspiring story of LGBTQ resilience. It’s true enough that I Am My Own Wife contains this element. The character of playwright Doug Wright (played, of course, by Park) tells Charlotte he’s amazed by her story of survival through a period of wartime and post-war persecution during which so many in the LGBTQ community were imprisoned and killed. But by the end of her long and convoluted tale, he’s saying something different: “I need to believe that things like that are true.” What do we know for certain? What do we think we know? How much does the truth matter? These are deeper, more nuanced questions than the program notes lead theatregoers to expect. They’re questions that make I Am My Own Wife much more than an inspirational story.

The play challenges the audience in other ways as well. Topically? Perhaps. Acceptance of gender-nonconforming people isn’t yet a given, even in New Haven. But it also challenges us as theatergoers. Like a difficult novel, this play requires you to figure out how to “read” it as you go: how to follow the lighting cues that distinguish between the present day (the 1990s) and the past (World War II through the 1990s); how to ignore Park’s feminine costumes when they’re slipping into male characters; how to follow the threads of Charlotte’s story that loop back on themselves. The crowd is required to engage (sometimes literally, as Charlotte solicits donations for the tour she gives us through her house-museum). Audience members willing to do a little bit of work will be rewarded with a deep and thought-provoking experience.

Britton Mauk’s intriguing set offers yet another twist in the fabric of I Am My Own Wife. A mass of gramophone horns like giant morning glories in a variety of sizes and colors, both muted and glittering, bloom on either side of Charlotte’s front stoop, their vines breaking through the door and over the transom. Their presence helps to establish the old-fashioned ambiance of Charlotte’s museum and plays on the importance of the hobby that binds Charlotte and her friend Alfred. Both are collectors of record albums and wax cylinder recordings, victrolas and gramophones and record players. But at times, these imposing bells seem like giant ears as well, listening in, like the Stasi, on every word that’s spoken.

We, the audience, must listen carefully, too—not because we’re spies (though, in a way, we are) but because you can’t necessarily believe everything you hear.

I Am My Own Wife
Long Wharf Theatre – 222 Sargent Dr, New Haven (map)
Through March 1
(203) 787-4282
www.longwharf.org/i-am-my-own-wife

Written by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Photographed for Long Wharf Theater by T. Charles Erickson.

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About Kathy Leonard Czepiel

View all posts by Kathy Leonard Czepiel
Kathy Leonard Czepiel is Daily Nutmeg's associate editor. She's also a fiction writer, writing teacher and book club troubleshooter. Her perfect New Haven day would involve lots of sunshine, a West Rock hike, a concert on the green and a coffee milkshake.

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