From the Reichstag fire to Hitler’s bunker, the Berlin airlift to the fall of the wall, Berlin played a key role in the history of the twentieth century. I AM MY OWN WIFE, now onstage at Norristown’s Theatre Horizon, explores the story of transvestite Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, surely one of the most singular characters to survive the twin tyrannies of Nazism and Communism.
In Berlin in the wake of German reunification, American John Marks writes to his friend “Doug Wright” (I AM MY OWN WIFE’s playwright) about the eccentric Charlotte. Having “grown up gay in the Bible Belt”, Wright is fascinated by the transgender Berliner and spends grant money and savings to pay her a series of visits, hoping to turn his interviews into a play.
As related in act one of this short two-act piece, Charlotte’s tale fascinates Wright (and the Theatre Horizon audience). Almost shot by SS troops in the desperate last days of Berlin street warfare, she survives to found a museum dedicated to the Gründerzeit (the wealthy time around the founding of the Bismarkian German Empire). Filled with furniture collected from families dispossessed by the German state, the museum and its underground Wiemar cabaret become a meeting place for gays and lesbians in East Germany. After reunification, she receives a German medal of merit for her work.
Charlie DelMarcelle plays all the characters in the play with an engaging empathy and energy. His Charlotte is an inviting raconteur, with a sing-songy faux German accent and endearing humor. Constrained by the playwright’s notes, DelMarcelle spends almost the entire play in Charlotte’s matronly women’s clothes (designed by Katherine Fritz), but director Kathryn Macmillan ensures smooth and effective transitions of voice and body to communicate and enliven almost thirty other personas.
The playwright permits one extended costume change to begin the second act, with an extended section on Charlotte’s associate Alfred Kirschener, locked in a communist prison. Soon after, I AM MY OWN WIFE twists as we discover Charlotte’s story may not be strictly true: [spoiler!] files reveal her work as an informant for the East German secret service, which perhaps included sending her friend to jail. The ruble which surrounds the stately drawing room of Maura Roche’s set now references not just war-torn Berlin of 1945 or the crumbling wall of 1989, but the very foundations of her tale.
In the play—as was clearly the case in real life—Wright is unsure how react to this news. Driven by tropes of newscasts and celebrity interviews, Wright overdramatizes the revelation, seeing it as a betrayal which casts her whole story in doubt rather than an enriching personal and historical detail in a tale of perseverance.
In the end, Wright’s sympathies lie with Charlotte, whatever the truth. He allows the audience to form its own opinions on her and her credibility, and the “Doug Wright” character steps out of the way enough to preserve a thought-provoking and morally complex tale rich in character detail and historical resonance. October 31-November 24, 2013, theatrehorizon.org.