Chicago Theater Review: I AM MY OWN WIFE (About Face Theatre at Theater Wit)

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by Lawrence Bommer on November 11, 2016

in Theater-Chicago


Call it the ultimate disruption of sexual security/certainty, a double life lived, as La Cage put it, “at an angle.” As the title suggests, I Am My Own Wife is a subversive true-life tale of a human born Lothar Berfelde and dying as Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, who redefined more than himself. As a transvestite (never a drag queen), she was a gay person who embraced both sides of his soul, living as a woman from his teen years to her demise in 2002.


13 years ago, Doug Wright’s conflicted tale, now a Tony-, Pulitzer Prize- and Lambda Literary-winning drama, was developed at About Face Theatre as a workshopped solo show. In 2016, taking the title further, About Face’s Charlotte is played by Delia Kropp, a transgendered actress. Three actors now flesh out the story, providing male counterweights to this outsider’s confessional. Splendidly shaped by Andrew Volkoff and perfectly pictured by Brian Prather’s telling props, this fluid “reimagining” delivers all the quicksilver nuances and treacherous turns in Wright’s necessarily convoluted exposure.


The bold casting works well: Kropp’s sometimes impassive dignity is a forceful presence in a plot that needs no artificial excitement to hit home. What galvanizes the action—which unspools in scenes announced with Brechtian projections—are the two views we get on Charlotte: her sometimes self-serving narrative and the growing respect and wariness of the playwright (Scott Duff) and his editor (Matt Holzfeind). Slowly they discover the disturbing contradictions and complexity of a self-made woman steeped in deception. (The fourth acting triumph belongs to Ninos Baba, who deftly plays a gallery of German and American reactors to the Mahlsdorf saga.)


In the early 90s Wright meets Charlotte, now the celebrity “Tranny Granny” who survived two Teutonic tyrannies (the Third Reich and East Germany). He’s drawn to her dynamic difference and fascinated by her curatorial conviction. After purportedly serving time in a juvenile penitentiary for supposedly killing her father for abusing her mother, “Lothar” was influenced by the writings of the sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld (who was persecuted by the Nazis for promoting the malleability of sexuality). Lothar took it seriously and became Charlotte: Moved by his aunt Louise’s wardrobe, the gay lad chose dresses over pants. Perhaps it was her way to accept “his” homosexuality by “normalizing” a forbidden orientation. In any case, no lovers seem to have played a part in Charlotte’s selective revelations.

delia-kropp-with-back-l-to-r-matt-holzfeind-and-ninos-baba-in-about-face-theatres-production-of-i-am-my-own-wifeHer real ardor was for the past, enshrined in Charlotte’s famous Grunderzeit Museum: This was her Berlin repository of beloved clocks, lamps, gramophones, wax cylinders, furniture and fin de siècle objets d’art from 1880 to 1900. Rejecting the radio or television, she’s fascinated by Edison’s recording machines and will do anything to enhance her trove. Her passion for the past includes rescued trappings from a demolished Weimar cabaret, a cellar which for 30 years Charlotte transforms into a homosexual hangout, a sex shelter for liaisons or kinky orgies.

But the postwar Charlotte, who is broadly diagnosed as autistic, has her secrets (as in lies) involving the STASI (the East German secret police). It’s enough to threaten a revocation of the Medal of Honor given her by the government and to induce her to move to Stockholm to escape scandal. It comes to a boil with Charlotte’s complex—and here, deeply wrenching–relationship with Alfred (Holzfeind), a gay record collector (15,000 vinyls!) who ironically bequeaths her his dedicated collection. To his dismay and finally despair, Wright receives evasive answers to his reluctant inquiry. These exasperate as much as mystify. Charlotte’s courage, it seems, was conditional.


In a potent final valedictory, Charlotte again displays her miniature treasures, lovingly lifting them from a leather coffer: She sternly refuses Wright’s suggestion that she repair the ravages of time that they’ve endured. No, she says, they must be displayed “as is.”


Of course, that’s just what Wright does for Charlotte in I Am My Own Wife, a full favor as it turns out. A last, haunting image returns us to little Lothar, a brave blond boy seen posing confidently between docile lion cubs as big as he is. Much less assured than the photo (which delivers the play’s most heartbreaking moment), his future beckons. Now we know the price it exacted.


photos by Michael Brosilow
poster photo by Margo Joy Hawk

I Am My Own Wife
About Face Theatre
Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave.
Wed-Sat at 7:30; Sun at 3
ends on December 10, 2016
for tickets, call 773.975.8150 or visit About Face

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

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