I Am My Own Wife
8 p.m. Wed.-Fri. (previews); 8 p.m. Sat. (opening night); 3 p.m. Sun.; through Dec. 9
Southern Rep, The Shops at Canal Place, 333 Canal St., third floor, 522-6545; www.southernrep.com
I Am My Own Wife is not The Diary of Anne Frank. When he was 15 years old, Lothar Berfelde discovered he preferred women's clothes. By 16, he decided to live the rest of his life as a woman, Charlotte von Mahlsdorf. As a homosexual, she never hid in an attic or closet. And when she was imprisoned in Nazi Germany, it wasn't for reasons of politics or sexual orientation. She was freed when the Russian army invaded, although homosexuality was later outlawed in East Germany. What survived of Weimar cabaret culture in East Berlin did so in her basement, under the eyes of the Stasi, the KGB-controlled secret police.
For merely surviving the Nazis and the communists, it would be easy and fair to label her a hero. But that doesn't begin to describe Charlotte's richly complicated life, the subject of Doug Wright's I Am My Own Wife.
"Part of the play is about trying to get to the truth of her life," says director Carl Walker.
Wright's play is the first one-man show to win a Pulitzer Prize. It also won Tonys for Best Actor and Best Play when it ran in New York City in 2004. But it was not an easy story for Wright to write. He nearly went broke traveling to Berlin to meet with Charlotte. During that time, files from the Stasi were opened, and though they may not be more truthful than Charlotte's account, they revealed a very different perspective on her life. (Charlotte left the country for several years afterward.)
"There were accusations of betrayal," Walker says. "But did she? And what would you have done? What would you do to stay alive?"
Charlotte lived her unconventional life in a straightforward manner. She wore dresses but no makeup, wigs or other effects to make her look more feminine. Collecting and restoring antiques left her with physically strong male hands, which she barely hid. Besides her open homosexuality, she was a sadist and allowed others to use space in her home for sadomasochistic liaisons as well as other sexual encounters. And as a storyteller, she exuded the wit and charm of Berlin's decadent cabaret and art scenes.
But much of Charlotte's life is not simple in retrospect. While apprenticing in the antique business, she took furniture from the burned and vacated homes of Jews and others sent to camps by the Nazis.
"She called the furniture her 'orphans,'" says Bob Edes Jr., who plays Charlotte, as well as portraying nearly 40 other characters she describes.
"[Wright] was so gung ho, so thrilled by her story," Edes says. "But when the facts start coming out, what do you do?"
Wright stuck to Charlotte's story, an account audiences may judge to be heroic, true or merely necessary given the extraordinary circumstances she survived.