Princeton and McCarter Theater were integral to the development of actor/director Mark Nelson, who for the third time, will don the black dress and pearls of Charlotte von Mahlsdodrf in the Pulitzer and Tony award winning play, “I Am My Own Wife” by Doug Wright, now in previews at George Street Playhouse and opening Friday, January 19.
While earning his degree in English at Princeton University (Class of 1977) he says, “I saw the formative productions of my life at the McCarter.” He lists “Mother Courage” with Eileen Heckart, “Awake and Sing” with Morris Carnovski, and “The Seagull” with Irene Dailey and Dan Seltzer — Nelson’s English professor at the time and faculty advisor — in the role of Sorin. “It was my first hint that you could be an artist and an academic at the same time, a sort of citizen of the world.”
Nelson has delved into the lives of many citizens of the world, including Albert Einstein in “Picasso at the Lapin Agile” (Off Broadway and on tour), Mozart in “Amadeus,” and Neil Simon’s “brother” in the semi-autobiographical “Broadway Bound” and “Brighton Beach Memoirs.” These last are only three of his Broadway credits. In “The Duel,” upcoming on PBS, he is Judge Pendleton, Alexander Hamilton’s second at that infamous event. Why all these historical people? “It’s just happened to me a lot.”
In 1999 he directed “The Seagull” at McCarter, as well as directing several other plays and performing in others there throughout his career.
In the introduction to the published text of “I Am My Own Wife,” playwright Doug Wright tells how he was introduced to the subject of what was to become his Pulitzer and Tony Award-winning play. A journalist friend working in Germany told him that he’d discovered a great character, “a true eccentric” for him. This was Charlotte, whom he described as “an elderly East German transvestite who lived in a rural suburb called Mahlsdorf about 40 minutes outside of the city [Berlin]. She had lived openly as a cross-dresser under the 20th century’s most conformist regimes — the Nazis and the Communists — for almost her entire life. Born Lothar Berfelde in 1928, she had long considered herself a member of the “third sex,” a female spirit trapped in a male body.”
Having seen “I Am My Own Wife” in New York three times, Nelson immediately agreed when asked to direct a production at the Cleveland Playhouse. He made a list of all the actors he could envision in the part and worked his way down the list. “They were all unavailable or terrified,” Nelson says. When asking friends for casting advice, one said, “You, stupid.” He realized that he was giving away “the best part of my life.” Anders Cato took over the direction and will also guide this production at George Street. While still performing in Ohio, they were asked to bring the production to the Coconut Grove Playhouse in Florida. “I had three weeks off and then went on again.”
Nelson and I talk in a restaurant in Manhattan, where the noise level rose with every new subject we discuss. However, when I first pull out my tiny digital recorder, Nelson smiles and tells me about something from the play. It seems that when playwright Doug Wright produced his tape recorder to document his conversation with the real Charlotte, she said (imagine Nelson’s Charlotte-style German accent) “I have a nickname for you, Thomas Alva Edison. He had a talking machine too, only his was made with tinfoil and a tiny stylus.” So we talked, and bravely, Nelson also ate his chicken kabob.
Wright chose the style for the play by taking a cue from his own process, which included interviews made over a period of time, access to diaries, and even a documentary in which Charlotte appeared as herself. In the introduction to the script, he writes, “Wasn’t the whole play at its core about the process of recording?” So he wrote himself in as one of the characters in his play as he journeyed through his fascinating introduction to and friendship with Charlotte.
Another stumbling block, according to Nelson, was that Wright knew, adored, and respected Charlotte, but was also privy to things about her that were damaging. It is commonly thought that she collaborated with the secret police and did whatever was necessary to survive. Nelson tells me that the end product took its cue from Charlotte herself who didn’t “varnish her image. She let the world see.”
The result is a tour-de-force one-person play. Nelson is not only Charlotte, but also Wright, six other characters who have substantial scenes, and as many as 30 or more “bit” players. It’s sort of like talking to himself. He describes the “trickiest” scene as one when three people are sitting around a table talking. “I think the key is that the character has to be as real in my mind as I can make him so that the second that I jump into that character he’s all there. My body and voice take on that person’s essence.” He worked with a vocal coach to perfect various German dialects as well as accents as varied as a Cockney, an Indian, and a GI from Des Moines. “She [the coach] also helped me to place my voice in several specific ways so that this gruff cynical German antiques dealer comes from a different place in my belly than the haughty lesbian aunt who first introduces Charlotte to the word transvestite.”
Nelson also had access to the tapes of Wright’s interviews with Charlotte. “So I’ve listened to hours and hours of her voice. It’s not a woman’s voice, and it’s not a man’s, but somewhere in the ether in between — very fluttery and exuberant and singsong and charming.”
Nelson fills me in on the story of the boy, Lothar, who became the character Charlotte. “There’s a fantastic scene in the play in 1943; she’d be 14. And she goes to the country estate of her Tante Louisa, finds girls’ clothes in her closet, and puts them on.” When we think of cross-dressers, he adds, “She’s not like any you’ve seen before because she’s not campy. She doesn’t wear makeup or a boa. She doesn’t imitate Bette Davis or Madonna. She sees herself as a simple German hausfrau.”
When I ask how she got to this image of herself, Nelson says he isn’t one to theorize and thinks we should draw our own conclusions from Charlotte’s history, which he recounts. Her father was a Nazi and a brutal abuser of his wife and children. Her mother was a very gentle and genteel aristocrat. Says Nelson: “I think Lothar, the boy she was, was so traumatized by his father and the abuse of his mother that rather than becoming the man who would defend his mother, he became the mother. To be her champion. To keep her spirit alive.”
Nelson has grown to admire Charlotte, her manner, and her will to survive even in a repressive social order where people are expected to value conformity over individuality. He feels the play speaks to a time when “people are expected to inform and surrender their privacy. It’s about passing judgment on difference and the ultimate impossibility of understanding what you would do in someone else’s shoes. It’s about who writes history — whose version of the truth of the world gets handed on. And what truth gets thrown on the junk heap and how do we rescue it from oblivion. How do we remember the things that history doesn’t want us to know?”
Nelson grew up in Westwood, New Jersey. His dad was a dentist and his mother, a first grade teacher. When he was maybe eight years old, his parents took him see “The King and I” at the New York State Theater at Lincoln Center. That was “it” for him. As he tells it, “my parents’ dreams of dental school for me were shattered.” His brother is a student now in Paramus and has no interest in the arts, much to the relief of his father. During our interview, he mentions that his parents plan to visit him in the city and he is busy trying to decide what play he should take them to see…maybe “The Voysey Inheritance.” It is about a non-artsy family and one of Nelson’s close friends, Michael Stuhlbarg, plays the leading role.
Immediately after his graduation from Princeton, Nelson came to Manhattan and began acting and bussing tables. With the help of a waiter connection, he got into the acting class of the legendary Uta Hagen. I notice that he still mentions her in his bio. (Something that most actors as well established as Nelson usually would have left far behind.) He says, “She’s engraved permanently on my psyche. I think some of her essence has sunk into my performance as Charlotte. After all, they are both formidable German women.” He feels that Hagen’s technique has served him well, especially when “I have to snap into a character and a situation on a dime. The reflex has to be to know exactly who you are and where you are and what you want instantly, in that moment — the essence of her teaching.”
He is passing on this Hagen legacy to the students at the Julliard Theatre School, where he is listed on the faculty, but he says he just serves as a director — of seven student productions so far. “It feels like home base for me,” says Nelson. He enjoys teaching and finds that “it is a way to regenerate my flame.” Because of the harsh realities of “show business,” he thinks it is “hard to shed your armor long enough to remember why you loved this to begin with.” The energy and idealism of the students help him to remember his own exuberance for the theater.
And from the look in his eye and sound of his voice, he is bringing that energy with him to the rehearsal process (which began on January 2) to again bring Charlotte to life. This time a new factor will be working on George Street’s thrust stage. “Now I’ll have audience on three sides.”
I Am My Own Wife, through Sunday, February 11, George Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick. One-man show starring Mark Nelson is based on the real life story of an East German man who lived his life as a woman and survived both the Nazi and Communist regimes. Written by Doug Wright and directed by Anders Cato. $28 to $56. www.gsponline.org or 732-246-7717.