I Am My Own Wife is the true (or not) story of a man (or not) who survived the Nazis and resisted the East German Stasi (or didn't) to live as a transvestite for more than 30 years in Berlin, ultimately becoming the darling of the European press after the Berlin Wall came down.
A precision performance by Everyman Theatre's Bruce Nelson actually makes all of this abundantly clear as he plays Berlin's most famous transvestite, Charlotte von Mahlsdorf - and the 34 other characters in playwright Doug Wright's one-person show.
Charlotte, who was born Lothar Berfelde in 1928, is discovered by an aunt at age 15 dressing up in women's clothing. In a departure from the usual traumatic coming-of-age stories, the boy's lesbian aunt merely puzzles over the accident of history that made her a woman and him a man when they both would have preferred otherwise. She gives him a book about homosexuality and transvestites by Magnus Hirschfeld, a German physician and sexologist, and tells him, "This will be your Bible."
Thus unfolds the fascinating story of Charlotte, who tells of attacking her brutal Nazi father; collecting thousands of antiques as they fell out of favor during the ensuing communist era; starting a museum to display her period clocks and gramophones; secretly running a nightclub for gays and lesbians in the basement of her museum for decades; and, in general, thumbing her nose at the secret police via her very identity as an unrepentant transvestite.
Nelson, who plays Charlotte as a modest, middle-aged matron in orthopedic shoes (a "tranny granny" as the press would later dub her), deftly assumes the roles of an entire supporting cast, from a jaded teen delivering a TV sound bite on identity to a pair of sneering lounge lizards to a drawling American translator speaking German with a Texas twang. Wife, which could be brutally long if performed by a lesser actor, moves along at a brisk clip in this nimble performance by the talented Nelson.
While the set seems a bit overrealized - as if scenic designer Daniel Ettinger and director Donald Hicken lacked complete faith in the actor's ability to carry the performance without tangibles like the junk-filled basement speak-easy - the production overall is adroit and eerily enhanced by sound designer Chas Marsh's scratchy gramophone recordings and hauntingly disembodied voice-over by the real Charlotte von Mahlsdorf.
Or should we say, the real Lothar Berfelde?
Because this play is all about identity - constructed, deconstructed, performed, manipulated, assumed and shared. "Ich bin ein transvestite," Charlotte famously echoes. And then, when her mother questions her after 30 years of hanging Charlotte's stockings on the clothes line, just when she intends to get married: "Ich bin meine eigene Frau."
I Am My Own Wife, which ran on Broadway from November 2003 to October 2004, is a script beautifully layered with complexities about the narratives we spin in our quest for heroic figures. When the great tapestry of history is unrolled, where do we see our kindred spirits? But it also dips into Germany's perennial questions about the nature of complicity: Do only the canniest survive a repressive regime? What multitudes of characters must one assume to survive in that context? What lies must be told? How skilled an actor must one be to navigate the dangers?
Playwright Wright, who has made himself a character in the show by chronicling the 10 years he spent interviewing Charlotte, is thrown into paroxysms of doubt when East German secret police files become public and raise questions about whether Charlotte was, in fact, a collaborator and spy. Which stories serve us best, he wonders, concluding, "I need to believe that she navigated the world's two most repressive regimes, the Nazis and the Stasi ... in heels."
if you go
I Am My Own Wife runs through Feb. 22 at Everyman Theatre, 1727 N. Charles St. Showtimes vary. Tickets are $24-$38. Call 410-752-2208 or go to everymantheatre.org.