Doug Wright’s fascinating one-man drama, I Am My Own Wife, is based on a true story. East German Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, museum owner and transvestite, survived some of the past century’s most turbulent times – the Third Reich and the years of communism that followed – and the play is drawn from interviews that Wright conducted with her throughout the 1990s. What results is not just a gripping tale but a work that questions the whole notion of a ‘true story.’
Born Lothar, Charlotte was indoctrinated into her cross-dressing ways by her lesbian aunt who wryly commented on the tricks that God plays – making Lothar a boy and making her a woman when the opposite was closer to the truth. As an adolescent Charlotte had to contend not just with growing up gay in Nazi Germany but with a brutal father as well; in the post-war years she owned a bar that served as a homosexual hangout. But Charlotte’s greatest passion was always for furniture: antique clocks and gramophones in particular.
Charlotte’s story is brought lovingly to life through an astonishing performance by Jefferson Mays. Sensibly-shoed and clad in black, with a string of pearls at his throat, he switches fluidly from character to character and from German to English, never faltering. Though quite a feat (his facility with accents is especially strong) this never feels like an exercise in acting; everything he does serves the story. He’s incredibly watchable and when director Moises Kaufman throws in the odd lighting gimmick to add texture to the show you wish he’d just left things alone because it only distracts from Mays’ performance.
If the play were only interested in rescuing a life from the archives and creating a minor gay icon it would be diverting enough, but along the way the narrative hits some problematic territory. Wright discovers that Charlotte, like so many East Germans under a particularly oppressive and paranoia-fuelled regime, was a Stasi informant. His method of dealing with the dilemma of how to slot this information into the drama, and to balance it with what he has already told us about Charlotte, is to write himself into the proceedings.
As a result I Am My Own Wife is not just a character study but also a drama about the difficulties of creating such a play, forever questioning its own ‘truth.’ Wright’s presence adds some more overt humour to the darker patches of the drama and allows him to highlight the discrepancies in Charlotte’s story without completely undermining what has gone before. This process is more pronounced in the second half and makes for a richer experience. It does however seem slightly odd, in a play that deals primarily with the complexity of human sexuality, that Wright has chosen to cast himself as a caricature camp American. But then I guess, it’s not his life we’re there to see.
The drama unfolds in front of Derek McLane’s deceptively simple set – full of secrets that reveal themselves as the play progresses – and that’s probably the best way to think about I Am My Own Wife. The advance hype from the US is such that the reality of the piece may disappoint. But, if you let it, Charlotte’s story has the power to enthral.
There’s been some complaint that the play never really gets under her skin – and it doesn’t – but it seems apparent to me that Wright never fully expected to. I Am My Own Wife celebrates one version of Charlotte von Mahlsdorf whilst never forgetting that a version is all it is. The play is flawed – a little too long, a little repetitious – and will not appeal to everyone, but as a piece of theatre it is willing to acknowledge its flaws and problems and is all the more satisfying for that.