The story of Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, a transvestite (born Lothar Berfelde) who lived openly both during the end of the Nazi regime and then for decades under the communists in East Berlin, would seem to be a slam-dunk heart warmer about a person who, against all odds, stayed true to herself.
Except... there's a darker side to the story, one that involves spying for the Stasi and betrayal of one of her best friends, along with doubts along the way about the veracity of the story. All of this became fodder for Doug Wright's insightful examination of identity and survival in I Am My Own Wife, which is in the midst of a triumphant revival at the Jungle Theater.
Once again, ace performer Bradley Greenwald dons the black dress and string of pearls as Charlotte, playing several dozen additional characters along the way, from the playwright, to German officials, to press, to Stasi agents, to neo-Nazis. Like the best of one-performer shows, you quickly forget that it is just a single actor onstage as he brings each of the characters to full life.
The center of attention, of course, is Charlotte. Her life stretches from the rise of the Nazis to the end of communism to the reunification of Germany. Her story is arresting, from killing her abusive father in the dying days of World War II to hosting a secret gay night club during the repressive 1970s in the basement of the mansion she had had personally preserved. It's the questions, however, that give the show its added depth. These questions are posed at every turn of her story, from the father to the exact details of how one of her best friends spent several years in jail.
All of this gives Greenwald plenty of fodder to work with and he runs with it from show's opening moments. Employing an impeccable German accent, Greenwald disappears into Charlotte in a way that goes far beyond the black dress and orthopedic shoes. It's a character that is already multi-faceted, but Greenwald works hard to make us understand her motives and beliefs, even if occasionally her actions are hard for us to understand.
Joel Sass does an excellent job in directing Greenwald, building on the work that the two did in the previous production. The set is also a stunner, it is based around the interior of Charlotte's mansion, with set pieces -- a gramophone, a miniature set of furniture to represent the interior -- added in for effect. It's what flanks the main set that really sets the stage in its place in history. To both sides are filing cabinets, full -- we would imagine -- of Stasi reports from or about the characters. Further back are columns, each with furnace doors built into them, as if from a concentration camp. Sass doesn't draw attention to it all, but these symbols of oppression hang over Charlotte throughout the entire play.