On Being a Museum
By Robert Brustein
I Am My Own Wife
By Doug Wright
416 W. 42nd St.
Box office: (212) 279-4200
At Playwrights Horizons, Doug Wright (the author
of Quills), Jefferson Mays (an actor trained with Ann Bogart's
SITI Company), and Moisés Kaufman (the director of Gross Indecency
and The Laramie Project), have all collaborated on a most remarkable
piece of political theater called I Am My Own Wife. Based on
the life of an actual German transvestite living in East Berlin named
Charlotte von Mahlsdorf (born Lothar Berfelde), the play and performance
are an extraordinary stroke of theatrical transformation, unquestionably
one of the most mesmerizing events of recent seasons.
All that appear at first on Derek McLane's equally
transformative set are a grey wooden floor, a facade decorated with
tasteless wallpaper, a table, and a wooden chest. A woman enters, wearing
a nondescript black dress, orthopedic shoes, and beaded necklace, smiles,
begins to speak, disappears and returns toting an old RCA Victor gramophone.
She then starts to deliver, in a thick German accent, a learned account
of Thomas Alva Edison and "His Master's Voice" ("the most famous trademark
in the world") as she places a wax cylinder on the machine and lets
it graze the record, producing tinny strains of 1920s jazz.
This woman is Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, and Wright's
dialogue is drawn from a number of interviews and letter exchanges the
author had with her from the summer of 1992 until her death in 2002.
Indeed, Wright, the author, soon makes an appearance on stage, a very
gay Southerner also played by Jefferson Mays, who impersonates about
40 characters in all--adults and children, men and women, gays and straights--not
to mention such sound effects as an audiotape rewinding. The sense that
the play is being written and researched the moment it is being performed
lends a certain Pirandellian urgency to the evening. And its political
and historical power is provided by a trip through German history in
the second half of the 20th Century, as Charlotte endures the dangers
and humiliations of being a transvestite under both Nazism and Communism.
She and the rest of the gay community, like European
Jews, are the natural victims of right-wing and left-wing German totalitarianism.
And the play, in part, is an account of how she "navigated between the
two most repressive regimes the world has ever known." But this is not
just an exercise in victimology. After a childhood in which she comes
under the influence of a lesbian aunt, and later confronts, and possibly
murders her brutal father with a rolling pin, Charlotte ends up as a
custodian of antique furniture and gimcracks such as old gramophones,
grandfather clocks, and miniature armoires, a symphony of junk beautifully
played on McClane's artfully littered set.
"She doesn't run a museum," remarks the author's
macho friend, John Marks, "she is a museum." And before long, it is
clear that all of recent German history resides in this retiring figure.
Brecht and Dietrich sat at her table. Most of East Berlin's homosexuals,
hounded by the police, found community in her house. And when the Berlin
Wall finally falls, she is awarded the Medal of Honor by a grateful
But Charlotte's past is not without stain. She
was an informer for the Stasi, and was probably responsible for the
imprisonment of another collector, a male homosexual named Alfred Kirschner.
(In defense, Charlotte claims that Kirschner urged her to name his name
since he was doomed to be caught anyway.) Her credibility under question,
threatened now by skinheads rather than by Nazis or Communists ("I have
met you before," she murmurs), Charlotte ends her days "in a garden
of gramophone horns." The last message Wright receives from her is a
photograph a ten-year-old boy, Charlotte as a child, flanked by two
tiger cubs poised either to lick or eat their human companion (the audience
passes a blowup of the photo in the lobby as it leaves).
As an acting performance, the evening is an electrifying
tour de force, its direction is stagecraft of the most exemplary and
seamless kind, its writing is spare, elusive, and highly literate. The
author can sometimes sound a little frivolous ("Hi, I'm Doug Wright
and I'm wearing lace panties"). But like Tony Kushner, he has found
a way to use his gay identity as a universal criticism of life.