Germany’s Family Jewels
Pearls lie everywhere in Leebrick’s Wife
BY SUZI STEFFEN
|Charlotte van Mahlsdorf (Vince Camillo) with her collection|
“Gender is what’s between your ears; sex is what’s between your legs,” says activist Kate Bornstein.
So much for gender and sex. But what about loyalty, truth and survival — especially between the conscience of a private person and the intrusions of a totalitarian state?
I Am My Own Wife, the current play at the Lord Leebrick Theatre, engages with these questions, focusing on a specific life. And what a life — what a pulsing, complex, contradictory, fantastic life!
After the Berlin Wall came down, queer folks across the world thrilled to the tale of Charlotte von Mahlsdorf. She was a self-described transvestite who survived the Nazis and the East German Stasi, both notoriously homophobic regimes.
Not only did von Mahlsdorf outlive both hostile governments, but, in her museum, she saved thousands of recordings and old clocks, many pieces of furniture and even a cabaret. The spare yet allusive set at the Leebrick, designed by artistic director Craig Willis, incorporates chairs from the actual time period as well as a beautiful gramophone. But when Charlotte collected her things, she was living under a regime that didn’t tolerate pretty baubles or bourgeois obsessions. How did she do it?
That’s the question playwright Doug Wright addressed as he leapt into the story. We know this from material he includes in the script, which recounts his first brush with Charlotte’s tale. His letters of introduction to Charlotte appropriately skewer his self-pretension, his desire for fame and his knowledge that this narrative had all the markings of a winner.
About the play’s success he was correct, but he little expected the twists and turns, the torturous secrets, he would discover on his repeated visits to the reunified Germany and the rediscovered Charlotte von Mahlsdorf.
“I wouldn’t want to review a one-person play,” another critic said to me on opening night. “For theater, you need conflict, and how can you have conflict with only one person?”
Damned if Wright didn’t pull it off. The play’s Tony, Drama Desk and Pulitzer awards merely add shine to the already radiant piece. At the Leebrick, I Am My Own Wife is a co-production of first-time director (and experienced vocal coach) Mary Unruh and actor Vince Camillo.
Camillo was decent in last year’s Seagull at the Leebrick and pretty good in Fortinbras at the Very Little Theater last summer. Still, playing 40-plus parts, two of which form the core of the play’s struggle, and holding audience attention for the hour and 45 minutes of talk-heavy action: That’s no easy task for an experienced older actor, much less one in his thirties. But Camillo, dexterous and flexible, takes the audience on a riveting journey through the 20th century — and through the complex interior of Charlotte’s personal history. With Wright as a guide, that journey is both complicated and devastatingly direct.
Camillo makes no serious attempt to look like a woman other than wearing Sarah Gahagan’s simply designed costume. When he plays Charlotte, he uses his hands to bring his focus inward, to seem both older and more “feminine” — though the play questions what that means. After all, Charlotte was born Lothar Berfelde and certainly never had sex reassignment surgery. Remember: Gender lies between the ears.
We do start to wonder what was going on in Charlotte’s brain as she tells Doug Wright stories of her daring escapes from horrible situations. Truth or fiction, both, neither? This is what Wright has to investigate and what Camillo must portray: The closets, the basements, the secrets folded into every corner of 20th century German history.
Camillo’s many characters stay fairly distinct, and the occasional German phrase rolls well off his tongue (though a quick note: Charlotte is three syllables auf Deutsch). The night I went, the audience remained enraptured even during slower moments; the pacing stayed strong, and Camillo had people both laughing and gasping.
From the lips of the characters, from the words of Doug Wright, from recordings on wax and paper and tape, drop jewels and dross. And in the midst of the detritus and gold of the 20th century, emblematic but unique, stands the story of Charlotte von Mahlsdorf. Hers is a tale that deserves telling — and, in this production, it deserves to be heard.
I Am My Own Wife continues through Nov. 24 at the Lord Leebrick Theatre. Tix available at www.lordleebrick.com or 465-1506.