Transferring from Broadway, where it collected awards like its main character collects furniture, Doug Wright’s I Am My Own Wife, starring Jefferson Mays and directed by Moisés Kaufman, is now playing at the Duke of York’s. Intrigued by a true story of transvestites, murder and Nazi Germany, Caroline Bishop went to the press night with an open mind…
She has no make up, piercing eyes, a crooked smile, white page boy hair, wears a black peasant dress and heavy black shoes, has no breasts (but enough paunch to make an impression) and a man’s hands.
This is how the show’s creator, Doug Wright, describes the subject of his two-act play, Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, an aging, German, gay transvestite with a penchant for collecting and restoring Weimar-era furniture, and this is how she appears throughout the play – her sombre, almost nun-like garb only highlighted by a single string of pearls around her neck.
I Am My Own Wife follows the true story of Charlotte, born Lothar Berfelde in 1928, and is told in Charlotte’s own words as recorded on a series of taped interviews carried out by Wright during the 1990s, when he became fascinated by her story and decided to turn it into a play.
A one-man show, Jefferson Mays plays Charlotte and over 30 other characters, including Wright. Though predominantly in Charlotte’s clothes, Mays conveys the other characters – including Stasi officers, American GIs, Charlotte’s monstrous father and her friend and fellow collector Alfred – through a diverse range of accents and body language. Wright is a camp, emotional American, while other characters are, by turns, comic and dark
Charlotte became a transvestite after trying on her lesbian aunt’s clothes and rather liking them. For a man, wearing a dress in Nazi Germany and in the subsequent Soviet Union occupation of East Germany, was, of course, more than tricky, and it is this that both created Charlotte’s infamy and led some to suggest that her survival throughout the years could not have been obtained without collaboration with the Stasi. Wright clearly identifies with Charlotte and sees her story as a triumph for gay men. “I grew up gay in the biblebelt. I can’t imagine what it was like in the Third Reich,” says Mays, playing Wright.
The play interweaves comedy and tragedy to touching effect, going back and forward in time as Charlotte describes the tumultuous, sometimes comic and mostly harrowing events of her life, from battering her abusive father to death with a rolling pin at age 15, to collecting her beloved furniture, phonographs and clocks and hiding them away from Nazi and Stasi eyes, a task which gained her a medal from the German government after reunification. Charlotte’s love for her museum is clear. The collection is reconstructed and always present on the set, demonstrating that in the face of everything, this was Charlotte’s main passion, and perhaps also her salvation. Just as she hoarded furniture, so she also hoarded fellow homosexuals, her house becoming a refuge for both during the oppressive cold war.
But is this sympathetic portrayal to be believed? Rumours suggest that Charlotte informed on her collector friend Alfred to the Stasi to save herself. Her Stasi file says she was a willing informant, though Charlotte claims Alfred told her to do it to save both herself and her precious collection. Wright clearly believes Charlotte, and though he admits he is biased, desperately wants the audience to believe her too.
Charlotte died in 2002, and the play comes to a close with the description of a photograph of a young Lothar at Berlin Zoo with his arms around two lion cubs. Faced with two great threats, Charlotte stood fearless and sashayed her way past them “in a pair of high heels”.