Elderly Transvestite Holocaust Survivor Tells All

Thirty characters, one actor, and one big liar

The stubborn thing about stories is their tendency to disobey their maker. Doug Wright's I Am My Own Wife is a work whose peculiar narrative truths shifted wildly during the process of its creation. A hit on Broadway two seasons ago, the work began during a trip to Germany in the early '90s, where Wright chanced upon a museum of antiques fussily overseen by the elderly Charlotte von Mahlsdorf. Charlotte was, in no particular order: a survivor of the Nazis as well as the communist East German regime, an inveterate storyteller, and a lover of clocks and old Edison phonographs. She was also a man who had been born Lothar Berfelde in 1928.

Bradley Greenwald plays Charlotte, as well as more than 30 other characters in this one-man show. In the early going, Greenwald offers up a weirdly compelling depiction, while the story revolves around Wright's real-life attempts to scrape together enough dough for trips to Germany to get Charlotte's life story down on tape. Wright also tips his hand as an opportunist: While he writes of his growing affection for Charlotte, he also allows that this story of an elderly transvestite Holocaust survivor is a potential gold mine, not least with the arts foundations that pony up grant money.

Charlotte's yarns are amazing indeed. Greenwald, in a black dress and pearls, plays her as a demure lady increasingly smitten by the sound of her own voice as well as her distinctive biography. Greenwald shifts into a lesbian aunt who advises young Lothar to dress the part he's born to play, then becomes Charlotte's Nazi father issuing murderous threats against the wife and kids. The script requires its single actor to change characters in mid-scene, and to craft distinctive voices for each. For a time, Greenwald pulls it off.

But then there's the second act, which deals with Charlotte's true-life exposure as an informer for the notorious Stasi, following the fall of the Berlin Wall and unsealing of secret files. (Director and set designer Joel Sass adorns the set with giant file cabinets and war rubble in a somewhat heavy act of symbolism.) Later, her celebrity status led critics to question many of the central claims of her life story and a period of semi-disgrace ensued. Our sympathy and affection for Charlotte become complicated indeed, though neither the script nor this production offers much of a glimpse behind her spectacular facade.

Here the most glaring weakness of this staging comes into stark relief: Greenwald's portrayal of Wright himself. The author we see onstage is a swell guy on a simple quest to tell a story. It's a performance that mostly absolves him of any self-serving motives (his appetite for grant money aside). Instead, he is a starry-eyed believer who presents his credulousness as a matter of affection and devotion. Nowhere do we see the other side of the professional storyteller—the vampire of other people's experience, who will expose foibles in an instant if it improves the narrative.

Not all the blame can be laid at Greenwald and Sass's feet. Wright ends the drama with a tepid platitude about taking people "as is" (like furniture, get it?), and makes a plea for sympathy with Charlotte by emphasizing her public shame and eventual death. But in no sense do we understand more than the fragmentary, and possibly false, outlines of her story (which is remarkable, if only for her endurance). We are left with surfaces, mannerisms, and a simulation of deeper truth. If I Am My Own Wife isn't divorced from reality, Charlotte has certainly taken a trial separation.

 
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