Weimar Germany was probably not the best time or place to be a boy who wanted to be a girl. But that was the unlucky fate of the real-life transvestite on whom Doug Wright's Pulitzer Prize-winning play I Am My Own Wifeis based. A solo show that opened to accolades in New York two years ago, Wife is not so much about the tribulations of single queer life as it is about concepts larger than mating -- namely, survival and truth.
The subject is Charlotte von Mahlsdorf. An unassuming but resilient cross-dressing antique dealer born male in Germany in 1928 as Lothar Berfelde, von Mahlsdorf is represented in Wright's docudrama as a handsome, dowdily dressed older woman in a simple black frock, orthopedic shoes, a black kerchief, and a string of pearls hiding one reminder of her biological maleness: her Adam's apple. Von Mahlsdorf identified strongly and resolutely as a woman, and somehow survived the fascist Nazi regime and the communist Soviet regime without ever removing her dress. An avid 19th-century furniture historian and collector, she turned her house into a museum (named the Grunderzeit) filled with all manner of things, especially gramophones and Victrolas.
Wright came upon von Mahlsdorf in the early '90s, when a journalist friend of his encouraged the playwright to meet his future subject. The author of the play Quills (and the screenplay for its 2000 movie version, featuring Geoffrey Rush and Kate Winslet), Wright became smitten with his eccentric new acquaintance. He conducted a series of interviews with her over many years, planning to weave the material into a play.
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He had begun to paint von Mahlsdorf as a political and social hero who endured persecution from the government during a decade that boasted one human rights disaster after another, but then came in for a shock: Midway into writing the play, Wright learned that the woman he adored had not been informed on by communist secret police, but had been an informer for them. He put the work aside for several years.
In 2000, Wright finally went back to his Wifeand, with the help of actor Jefferson Mays and playwright/director Moises Kaufman (creator of The Laramie Project), came to understand von Mahlsdorf's less commendable actions as the product and the necessity of an impossible time. In the finished piece, Mays plays 37 characters, using the simplest gestures and most complex vocal shifts to morph from an SS officer into a sleazy German talk show host into von Mahlsdorf's friend Alfred. Mays even portrays the playwright, and he does it all in a sensible, habitlike dress.
On the surface, the play is a fascinating story about endurance. But Wright's real revelations lie in the subtext -- in a world of truth, lies, and the more populated space in between.