Artifact as Survivor
By Alexis Greene
I Am My Own Wife
By Doug Wright
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The dark eyes of Jefferson Mays glitter ferociously
as he stands on the main stage at Playwrights’ Horizons. Costumed in
a black peasant dress adorned only with a string of pearls, he portrays
a German transvestite named Charlotte von Mahlsdorf in Doug Wright’s
new play I Am My Own Wife. Looking at the audience, seeing
us see the mesmerizing combination of graceful actor and piercing expression,
Mays challenges us, if we can, to uncover the secrets of Charlotte’s
This daring, imaginative performance is the
main reason to see Wright’s play, which tries desperately but unsatisfactorily
to reveal a fascinating character to us and to himself, and to find
a metaphor for survival in her unique story.
Wright, who is probably best known as the author
of Quills, a drama about the Marquis de Sade, first met Charlotte
in 1992, when she was 65 and still living in Germany, and interviewed
her and corresponded with her until she died in 2002. When Lothar Berfelde
was in his early teens, Wright learned, a cross-dressing aunt helped
the boy discover his true sexual orientation, and Charlotte, a woman
with jaw-length blonde hair and massive hands, emerged. At the age of
sixteen, according to the play, she murdered her abusive Nazi father,
who she believed would have killed her and her mother. Jailed for the
crime, she claims to have escaped when the Russians attacked Berlin
toward the end of World War II and eventually she moved into a crumbling
mansion. There she started collecting Victrolas and gramophones, late-nineteenth-century
clocks and furniture, which the play suggests she cherished more than
The Berlin wall went up, and Charlotte lived
in East Berlin in her furniture museum, running a tavern for gay men
and women in the basement and keeping the secret police at bay, probably
by informing on fellow collectors. When will you marry, her mother asked
when Charlotte was around 40. “I am my own wife,” Charlotte told her.
On stage this story unfolds like a documentary.
It is an amalgam of excerpts from Wright’s taped interviews, recreations
of his own process of self-doubt and partial discovery, and cameos of
people in both Charlotte’s world and his own. Mays acts Charlotte and
at least 40 other characters, almost always wearing the black dress
and pearls but seamlessly changing accents, physical postures and outlooks.
By turns he plays the gentle aunt; an angry jailed friend who does not
know that Charlotte has betrayed him to the police; an asinine television
talk-show host; and most importantly Doug Wright, anxious, caring interviewer
and dramatist. Editor as much as playwright, Wright constructs a piece
that cuts back and forth between Charlotte and the people she encounters,
including himself, sitting in her museum and recording her words on
The elegant production lends the play the freedom
it needs. Upstage, scenic designer Derek McLane provides a high wall
of shelves stuffed with clocks, tables and vintage record players, lit
by David Lander so that the objects glow with a sort of burnished shine.
Downstage, the director Moisés Kaufman puts only
an occasional wooden table or cabinet, on which Charlotte sets a Victrola
or, in the production’s artful approach to offering a tour of her museum,
miniature pieces of furniture. Unfortunately Kaufman paces every sequence
similarly, so that the production feels without rhythmic variation.
But exquisite though the production looks, and
riveting though Mays is, something is lacking in the play. It is as
if Wright became so enveloped by his research that he lost his way.
In an interview with Playwrights artistic director Tim Sanford, Wright
describes how “the more I discovered about my central character, the
more conflicted I became about her very nature. And it became harder
and harder and harder to write.” Five years after he began to interview
Charlotte, he felt blocked and had not found a dramatic form for his
Ultimately, working with Kaufman and Mays, Wright
evolved the play’s current shape. But sitting in the theatre, we yearn
for more scenes depicting this unique woman, and fewer showing the writer,
no matter how adeptly Mays transforms from one to the other. While breaking
through his own creative wall, Wright constructs a barrier of interviews
and facts between us and his subject.
Perhaps the barrier is a natural outcome of the
playwright’s frustration. As the character of Wright admits more than
once, he never penetrates to the heart of the intriguing Charlotte.
Never learns what beats beneath the pearls and the black dress. Nor
do we. What was her sexual life? Did she even have one? According to
a 1992 German documentary, she did, but for some reason Wright excises
this vital side of Charlotte’s personality.
Except for a few moments, largely created through
the gleaming eyes and open face of the extraordinary Mays, we rarely
glimpse this woman’s soul. One glimpse comes when the teen-age Charlotte,
dressing in her aunt’s clothes, first looks at herself in a mirror,
and we see an instant of recognition and pleasure. Another happens when
she describes killing her brutal father.
But mostly, as Wright voices toward the play’s
end, Charlotte is like a piece of her beloved collection. “I became
this furniture,” she says at one point. In this identification Wright
finds a symbol and an answer to how Charlotte survived two murderous
political regimes. To us she remains a curiosity--fascinating, but veiled
and not quite human.