George Street’s “I Am My Own Wife,” by Doug Wright, is an extraordinary play that tells the story of an extraordinary character. Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, born Lothar Berfelde, was an actual person, an East German transvestite who survived both the Nazi and the East German Communist regimes without hiding her sexual identity. Wright traveled to East Germany several times to interview von Mahlsdorf and from his tapes and his other research constructed a tale of honor and shame.
“I Am My Own Wife,” which won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 2004 and the Tony award for best play, has a cast of one, in this case Mark Nelson, known to George Street audiences as both an actor (“Talley’s Folly,” 2002) and a director (“The Seagull”). Note that in this “one-person play” Nelson plays 35 characters, male and female, English speaking and German speaking, ranging from children to the elderly. Most are minor parts — but even the tiniest have vivid and sharply defined characteristics. Several parts — including Charlotte, of course, as well as the author (who is written into the story), a friend of the author’s who first interests him in the story, and a colleague of Charlotte’s whom she may have betrayed — have parts that keep them in the story for more than a scene or two.
Nelson is amazing. He changes not just his voice but his facial characteristics and his carriage. Without a fade, he lifts one eyebrow and becomes a new person, the rest of his body following. Sometimes he turns his back to the audience to become someone else, but often the change is almost instantaneous, and he operates with almost no change in costume or accessories. Charlotte wears a simple black dress with a string of pearls, and without a costume change Nelson gives us the author, American soldiers, radio announcers, newspaper reporters, Charlotte’s relatives, Stasi officials, and SS officers. Unless it is significant to the scene, Nelson makes his costume seem immaterial.
Charlotte has developed a small museum in her home, collecting old sound equipment — phonographs, victrolas, gramophones, Polyphones — and 1890s furniture and artifacts, much of which she rescued from houses destroyed by the Communists. She is fascinated by Thomas Edison (pronounced Ettysone) and considers calling someone Thomas Edison the highest compliment she can pay. She also has in the basement a secret gay bar, the only one left in the suburbs of East Berlin, which she transported to her house the day before the building it was in was destroyed by the Soviets.
This is not just the story of Charlotte, but of the author’s difficulties in writing the play. At several points, he finds himself unable to proceed, the worst blow coming when he realizes that Charlotte had probably cooperated with the East German secret police. How to handle this issue becomes a huge moral (and dramatic) dilemma for the author. His indecision about whether or how to proceed forms one of the dramatic issues of the play.
This production was developed for the Cleveland Play House, with scenery designed by Hugh Landwehr, costumes by Jeffry van Curtis, lighting by Howell Binkley, and sound by James C. Swonger. The single set usually represents Charlotte’s house, and the lighting becomes all more important because it is used to focus the action or show spaces and objects not normally part of the set. At times we see partially destroyed large public buildings behind the house; at other times, objects from the museum. Frequently the sky is filled with large, not entirely convincing, clouds.
There were moments when the visual aspects seemed motivated more by the desire to create an effect than the desire to further the dramatic action. For example, the theater’s usual forward thrust stage was cut back to create extra room for piles of debris. It was not obvious what function these trash piles serve. Are they meant to show the destruction caused by the bombing of the city or the building of the wall? And what might be the function of the purse hanging from the front door before the play begins that is gone as soon as the action starts?
As long as Mark Nelson continues performing at his present level, none of this matters; the audience is not likely even to notice an object or a stage effect placed on either side of whatever character Nelson is at that moment.
— Barbara Westergaard
“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. $28 to $56. www.gsponline.org or 732-246-7717.