by Gail M. Burns, May 2008
A man tells a story over and over so many times he becomes the story. In that way, he is immortal.
– Daniel Wallace, Big Fish: A Novel of Mythic Proportions
Charlotte von Mahlsdorf (1928 - 2002), born Lothar Berfelde, was a man with many stories. A homosexual man and a transvestite, Charlotte lived as a woman and since both he and the playwright Doug Wright refer to him in the feminine, I will do so too for the duration of this review, but I want to make it clear that Charlotte was biologically male.
That Charlotte managed to survive both the Nazi and Communist regimes in her native Germany is astounding, and it is this impossibility that draws Wright to her story. Wright frames the play as his own quest to understand Charlotte and claim an important piece of his own history as a gay man.
I Am My Own Wife opened in New York in 2003 and promptly won every prize available – including the Pulitzer. The title, which is also the title of Charlotte’s autobiography and a 1992 German film in which Charlotte appears, refers to a statement she claims she made to her mother when asked why she hadn’t married, "Ich bin meine eigene Frau.”
When you think of a transvestite, you think of an exaggerated, almost cartoonish, affectation of the outward trappings of femininity. When I say that Charlotte lived as a woman, I mean that she did it the way I do it. When I wake up in the morning I am a woman. I get up, dress for the day, and go about my business. That is exactly what she did. She added no false accessories to her body – no wigs, prosthetics, make-up (she said she didn’t need any). She preferred demure black dresses, wore heavy orthopedic shoes, and always wore her pearls. Charlotte von Mahlsdorf was more of a natural woman than Dolly Parton. Except that she was a man.
But this is not a story about sex or sexuality. This is a story about storytelling. Charlotte told many stories of her life. The validity of many of them are disputed. Did she murder her father? Did she betray a fellow antiques dealer to the Communists simply to acquire his collection? Was she really able to run a gay and lesbian nightclub in her cellar during the Communist regime?
This is also a story about material possessions. Charlotte devoted her life to collecting everyday household furnishings from the period in German history known as the Gründerzeit and her collection eventually became the Gründerzeit Museum. (I refer you to the Museum’s Web site for a complete explanation of the word Gründerzeit and the amazing history of the collection and its home.)
Charlotte was particularly fond of gramophones and other early devices for playing recorded music. This fascination with recordings as opposed to live performance – Charlotte never owned a radio or a television – is indicative of her need to repeat and encode stories. She died of a heart attack while alone among her gramophones on a holiday visit to Berlin after living in Sweden for several years.
Wright has Charlotte say that she lived her life in the following order: Museum. Furniture. Men. And in one scene she turns down a sexual proposition in order to keep an appointment with a clockmaker from whom she hopes to make a purchase.
Charlotte literally created herself and her museum/world from scratch. Wright eventually realizes that he is curating her life, as she did, and despairs of ever being able to bring her story to the stage. But Charlotte explains that items in her museum must not be refurbished. They must be shown “as is.” You look at a piece of furniture and it has a scratch, you don’t ask how the scratch got there, you accept it as a part of the whole. Wright asks the audience to accept Charlotte and her stories “as is.” They are good stories and it is not a waste of mental energy to consider for a time how humans create themselves as the leading characters in their own sagas.
One actor, Vince Gatton, portrays Charlotte, Wright, and a couple of dozen other people – male and female – in the current Barrington Stage production. This requires giving each person a distinct voice and posture since costume changes are rarely made. Gatton is an appealing performers who has shown his talent for this sort of multi-character mono-drama to Berkshire audiences with his two appearances in Becky Mode's Fully Committed at Barrington Stage last year. Here some of Gatton's transitions are abrupt – whether this is the fault of Gatton, director Andrew Volkoff, or Wright’s script is hard to tell – but Gatton and Volkoff make each character distinct and memorable. When Gatton makes each transformation you remember whether or not you have met that character before and how he or she fits in to the overall narrative.
Wright and Volkoff present the show in Brechtian style – Charlotte even plays a little Kurt Weill on the gramophone. You never forget that you are in a theatre watching an actor perform. Each scene has a title and that title is projected on the space above the grand doors to the Mahlsdorf Manor House which houses Charlotte’s museum.
Brian Prather has designed a spare set that implies rather than recreates Charlotte’s collection. Scott Pinckney’s lighting design aids in the definition of time and place. Rather than using actual life-size furniture, Paul Eric Pape has designed beautiful little original miniatures which Gatton produces from a chest and presents as a guided tour of Charlotte’s museum early in the play. They remain on stage for the duration. They could perhaps be just a tiny bit bigger and still retain their delicate charm while being easier to admire.
I was reminded of Prather’s set for the 2006 BSC production of The Collyer Brothers at Home although there the clutter was very real, but the theme of using objects to identify and define the people who choose to collect and live with them was similar.
A great deal of German is spoken in this show, and many characters speak with German accents. I know that there are people for whom this is uncomfortable, and so I say this as a warning as well as for informational purposes. I know no German, but I had no trouble making my way through the bilingual maze. I find it easier to understand German when it is spoken than in its written form. Gatton speaks slowly and clearly, and Wright often provides immediate translations when full German sentences are uttered.
I would not bring young children to this show. There is very little adult language and no “adult situations” are depicted, but you do need to know a certain amount of 20th century history and have an understanding of how adult sexuality varies to understand what is going on. Teens, particularly those wrestling with their own sexual identity (is there a teen who isn’t?), will probably find this play fascinating. The most uncomfortable parts of this play are not the ones that address homosexuality but the ones that present the ongoing atrocities bred of human hatred and intolerance.
This is Barrington Stage’s first show in their new Stage II space in the VFW Hall on Linden Street in Pittsfield. I have to say that BSC is the master of creating performance space. They have only been in this building for six weeks and it feels like a theatre – an accessible, comfortable theatre with good sightlines and acoustics, plenty of parking, and attractive rest-rooms. The many-sided entryway (formerly a bar) with its distinctly 1974 style makes a fun and surprisingly spacious lobby area. It has character rather than being a generic space.
I imagine that the performance space is created to be flexible. For this show it is arranged as a traditional 4th wall proscenium house, but I would bet that the next time I walk in it will be completely different.
Barrington Stage Company's new Stage II is located at in the VFW Hall at 36 Linden Street, in Pittsfield, MA. For tickets, call 413-236-8888 or purchase online at www.barringtonstageco.org. I Am My Own Wife runs through June 8. Performances are Tuesday through Friday at 7:30pm, Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 3pm. New this year is Pay What You Can Night for ages 35 and under. Pay-What-You-Can Night for I Am My Own Wife is Friday, May 23 at 8pm, minimum $5 cash at door. The show runs two hours and five minutes with one intermission and is not suitable for children under 13.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2008