'Chameleon' in challenging role

The Baltimore Sun

The man in the black cotton skirt and kerchief plucks the string of pearls hanging around his neck. His fingers probe cautiously the area over his heart, as if to determine if that organ has remained intact.

Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, Berlin's controversial "tranny granny," was a transvestite, folk hero and police informant who died in 2002. But she will step onto the Everyman Theatre stage this month in the person of actor Bruce Nelson, who is starring in a one-performer play called I A m My Own Wife that is based on her life story.

Von Mahlsdorf was born male and named Lothar Berfelde, but he preferred to live as a woman. "Charlotte" will recount how she navigated two notoriously homophobic and repressive regimes (the Nazis and the Communists) in a pair of high heels.

At least, the character will tell one version of the story, the version that not surprisingly puts her in the best possible light. Other, more troubling questions may remain shadowy. They will be raised by the other 34 characters in the play, whom Nelson also plays.

There's the issue, for instance, of when von Mahlsdorf became an informer for the Stasi, the East German Ministry for State Security. Not if she betrayed her close friend, antiques dealer Alfred Kirschner, but when, and under what circumstances. Was it under duress, and at Kirschner's insistence? Or was his arrest a premeditated and cold-blooded deception that she used to secure protection for herself and the furniture museum she founded?

"When I first saw I Am My Own Wife on Broadway, I assumed we'd never be able to do it," says Vincent Lancisi, Everyman's artistic director.

"I didn't think I'd find an actor with the talent and tenacity and courage to take on a role this grueling. So when Bruce first expressed interest in doing the play, I jumped up and down. This is an important story; it needs to be told, and he is perfect for this role."

Though this is a play that unapologetically transgresses all manner of social norms, it nonetheless was instantly embraced by New York theatergoers. The drama ran for nearly a year on Broadway, and won just about every major literary and theatrical award handed out in 2004, including the Pulitzer Prize and the Tony Award for best play.

It also made a national star of Jefferson Mays, who won the Best Actor Tony for his performance as Charlotte, et al.

And that's precisely the problem.

Mays is an associate artist at Center Stage, beloved by local audiences who still rave about his performance as Tony Lumpkin in the theater's 2001 production of She Stoops to Conquer and about his portrayal of the title character in Peter Pan the next year.

Mays is, to put it mildly, a tough act to follow - even for Nelson, who has been a member of Everyman's ensemble for the past seven years and has been lauded in The Washington Post as one of the region's premier comic actors.

While Nelson was researching the role of Charlotte, he checked out the tape of Mays' performance as Charlotte from the Lincoln Center's archives.

"I didn't think it would be hard to watch," says the 42-year-old Nelson.

"Jefferson is Jefferson, and I'm me, and I thought, 'I'll just put my own spin on the role.' But Jefferson was just so fabulous. And then I thought: 'How can I do some of the things that he's done?' They serve the piece perfectly. But they're his."

After consulting Donald Hicken, who is directing the Everyman production, Nelson relaxed.

"This play has already been done many different ways," Hicken says. "Some productions have been done with multiple actors portraying the 35 characters. The important thing is to serve the playwright's vision."

Of course, that's easier said than done. Last spring, when Lancisi was announcing the 2008-2009 season, he described I Am My Own Wife as "an acting tour-de-force that will take every ounce of Bruce's emotional life, intelligence and stamina. But I know he's up to it."

Though Nelson was born in New Jersey, he grew up in Columbia and has been acting full-time since he graduated from Towson University in 1988.

As a teen, it was his comic gifts that were the most prominent; in his high school yearbook, he was voted both "class clown" and "most talented."

It wasn't until a stint with the National Players, where Nelson starred as the title role in The Elephant Man, that he discovered that he could do more than just deliver gags.

"That production transferred to the Olney Theatre Center, where it ran as part of their main season," he says. "It taught me that I had something to say."

Nelson will need every bit of gravitas he possesses for his current gig.

It isn't just that von Mahlsdorf was a real person, with a real person's complications and contradictions. And it isn't just that Nelson will be all alone on stage for nearly two hours, without the presence of other performers who will feed his energy and share a production's inevitable ups and downs.

As Nelson puts it: "When I'm on stage, and I'm giving, giving, giving, it's so much easier when I'm talking to another actor, and not just a blank wall."

Then he reconsiders: "Of course, there are some actors who are like black holes. They suck everything out of you without giving back. In those cases, it's easier to be standing up here alone. You don't resent the wall."

In addition to all this, Nelson will also have to bring to life nearly three dozen men and women, without so much as a costume change to facilitate his transformations.

"He has to switch roles so fast, sometimes with every line," Hicken says. "He needs to find a way to communicate who he is very quickly, so that the audience will understand what's going on."

If that weren't enough of a challenge, Nelson also must master perhaps a dozen dialects. Most of the dialogue is spoken with a German accent, but the script also includes the voices of American soldiers hailing from Texas, New York and the Midwest, plus journalists from India, France and Japan. Yet another character is Jewish.

Then there's von Mahlsdorf herself, a consummate actress who took on whatever persona was most likely to help her survive.

Luckily, this is not the first time that Nelson has portrayed multiple roles: He pulled off that trick four times previously, most recently last season, when he performed The Santaland Diaries at Rep Stage and The Turn of the Screw at Everyman.

Both Hicken and Lancisi describe Nelson's gift for mimicry with the same phrase: He is, they say, "a chameleon." Hicken says that Nelson is following in the tradition of such performers as Dustin Hoffman, Meryl Streep and Alec Guinness, who revel in their ability to submerge themselves in vastly different characters.

"Bruce is just so incredibly versatile," Hicken says.

"He has a very limber voice and physical instrument, and he can go back and forth from being an elderly man in prison to a terrified boy in a housecoat facing the Nazis. That's the kind of actor you need for a play like this."

Perhaps it takes a shape-shifter to know one.

bruce nelson

Age: 42

Birthplace : Fort Dix, N.J.

Residence : Baltimore

Occupation : Actor and ensemble member of Everyman Theatre

Education : Bachelor of Arts in theater, Towson University, 1988

Awards: 2004 Helen Hayes Award for Best Actor; 2006 Helen Hayes Award for Best Supporting Actor

Personal triumph: Lost 80 pounds by dieting and has kept the weight off for several years

Family life: Partnered with psychologist Richard Goldberg; father of a 2-year-old son, Nelson Knoche

if you go

I Am My Own Wife runs from Jan. 14 through Feb. 22 at Everyman Theatre, 1727 N. Charles St. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays-Thursdays; 8 p.m. Fridays; 2 p.m., 8 p.m. Saturdays; 2 p.m., 7 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $24-$38. Call 410-752-2208 or go to everymantheatre.org.

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