REVIEW: ‘I Am My Own Wife’ marries a remarkable drama to a more remarkable world

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We live in a world that is determined to explain everything. The literary world, even more so.

But some things defy a thorough examination or ability to stand as a metaphor. Things like a lone bee wandering in the backyard on sunny day in the dead of winter. Things like  a stash of change in the car ashtray. Things like Charlotte Van Mahlsdorf.

The focus of Doug Wright’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, “I Am My Own Wife,” the famous and infamous German transvestite Charlotte Van Mahlsdorf defies
explanation.

Based on a true story, and inspired by interviews conducted by the playwright over several years, "I Am My Own Wife" tells the fascinating tale of Charlotte von Mahlsdorf (born Lothar Berfelde), a real-life German transvestite who managed to survive both the Nazi onslaught and the repressive East German Communist regime. "I Am My Own Wife" was the first one-person show ever to win a Pulitzer Prize. Performances are Fridays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 6:30 p.m. at the John Hand theater on the Lowry Campus in Denver
Based on a true story, and inspired by interviews conducted by the playwright over several years, “I Am My Own Wife” tells the fascinating tale of Charlotte von Mahlsdorf (born Lothar Berfelde), a real-life German transvestite who managed to survive both the Nazi onslaught and the repressive East German Communist regime. “I Am My Own Wife” was the first one-person show ever to win a Pulitzer Prize. Performances are Fridays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 6:30 p.m. at the John Hand theater on the Lowry Campus in Denver

Charlotte, pronounced in the German fashion, “shar-lot-uh,” rose to celebrity after a lifetime of hiding in plain sight. Born Lothar Berfelde in 1928, Charlotte explains in this intriguing one-man show how a mild-mannered transvestite could survive a violent father, Nazi Germany in Berlin, and then the oppressive and ruthless East German communist regime.

Both Charlotte’s story and one-man star Greg Alan West are mesmerizing in the play that lets the astounding tale seep through the
audience.

West masterfully wrangles about a dozen characters on an unchanging set and in the same black, Prussian peasant, hausfrau get-up. But it is his unraveling of Charlotte makes the show memorable, even as it’s happening.

West is able to channel the Charlotte that was humble and demure, as she appeared on TV interviews, and at the same time keen and
driven.

If you don’t know her story, she became a German and international sensation at the end of and just after the demise of the Soviet Union and destruction of the Berlin Wall. She said she confronted and accepted her transvestism one summer while visiting a Prussian aunt and wearing her clothes. Her aunt was a lesbian, and sympathetic to Charlotte’s eccentricities.

Charlotte somehow survived the growing Nazi indoctrination and at one point, her father put him in the Hitler Youth movement. Charlotte explains that she eventually kills her father in self-defense during a bent family crisis, and she is sent to a juvenile jail. She is freed from there by the Allies at the end of the war, and picks up her life in the fresh disaster of East Berlin. There, she opens an odd museum, The Grunderziet, a museum “of everyday things.”

The play focuses on Charlotte’s ability to live in drag and as a homosexual, at a time and under a regime that was ruthless to gays and lesbians.

Charlotte’s museum was often the site of homosexual activism as well as parties, yet she and the museum lived in plain sight while the Stasi destroyed the very fiber of the country.

West shines when he conveys how this man in drab drag just wanted to collect the world’s mundane prizes and put them on display.

The play builds around how Charlotte’s post-Soviet fame imploded when it was revealed she may actually have been a participant or a pawn of the Stasi, and that she may have been more of a vulture in collecting items from evicted Jews during and after the war.

West and Director Clint Heyn show restraint here and throughout the show to make Charlotte and her story anything more than it is: an enigma. How was it that she survived in circumstances that ended so tragically for hundreds of thousands of others like her before and after the Nazi calamity?

West and Heyn remain true to the notion that Charlotte was an aberration. Something as distracting as a familiar insect in the dead of winter. The show reveals Charlotte as much more similar to all of us than different, in that we are all collectors of mundane things, we all push against the gray areas of right and wrong, depending on the times, the circumstances and our own perceptions.

The show strays only when Charlotte, herself, becomes humorless in looking hard at her own, odd, funny life. She was the antithesis of a drag queen. A man who felt most comfortable looking like every aging European housewife trying not to get noticed. But in her autobiography and during television appearances, it was Charlotte’s droll demeanor that solidified her fame. It was that tender jocularity that made her a curious story rather than a morbid curiosity.

West conveys that Charlotte was no hero, even while her story was acutely heroic. She was a candidate for our sympathy, even when we couldn’t understand her motives and ways.

West’s performance is enthralling, if not exhausting, and the show adds a dimension to the horrific history of World War II that everyone should understand.

‘I Am My Own Wife’

Presented by the Firehouse Theater Co.

John Hand Theater/Colorado Free University, 7653 E. First Place, on the Lowry Campus in Denver        

Through Feb. 7

Fridays at 7:30 p.m.; Sundays at 6:30 p.m.

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