“I Am My Own Wife” a grand one trans-woman show

“If they shoot me, what is the difference between boy and girl? Dead is dead,” says Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, played by Matthew Alvin Brown in “I Am My Own Wife.”
This line, about Mahlsdorf’s interactions with SS officers during WWII, is a vivid one that captures why Doug Wright, who originally wrote the play, was fascinated by her. Originally born as Lothar Berfelde, Mahlsdorf was a transgender who survived both the Third Reich and the Communist regimes in East Berlin.
The play, a collaboration between Tulsa Project Theatre and the Lyric Project of Oklahoma, explores Mahlsdorf life as Wright learned about her story. Written from Wright’s conversations with Mahlsdorf, the play won a Pulitzer for Drama and several Tony awards in 2004.
“I Am My Own Wife” is not a linear exploration of Marhlsdorf’s story; instead, it weaves Wright’s conversations with her into the plot. In doing so, the play makes the audience experience the highs and lows of Wright’s attempts to learn the truth about Mahlsdorf. The first time Wright writes himself into the play, the effect is a little jarring; most plots preserve the separation between subject and author, but in the end, I began to enjoy the interplay. Including the playwright in the play, however, does lessen its ability to truly question what kind of person Mahlsdorf is. In trying to tell her story, Wright doesn’t often delve into hard-hitting questions or investigation to determine what is behind the demeanor.
To begin, Mahlsdorf describes her gramophone in meticulous detail, letting the reader experience how much she adores her antique collection, and how much of her life is consumed by it. Very often, the play digresses into discussions of antiques, and Mahlsdorf comes across as someone who might care more about them than those around her. It then moves to when Wright first learned about her, setting up the basis for the play: Wright wants to know Mahlsdorf because he feels like her story would be an amazing play, especially as a gay man.
During Wright’s interviews, Mahlsdorf lived in a house in East Berlin, which she transformed into the Gründerzeit Museum. The museum housed her antique collection from that time period, about the mid-19th century. In the play, the audience learns her work in preservation earned her Germany’s Medal of Honor. The play even incorporates a tour of the museum, which strengthens the idea that Mahlsdorf is just your typical, slightly eccentric old woman. One who, the audience is continuously reminded, is not a woman; her being transgender often factors into her story, as does her involvement in the gay community.
But as the play continues, the audience is led into a much greyer area. Wright, who first came to her amazed she survived the Nazis and the Communists as a transgender, soon learns that survival may have come at a high moral price. He learns, along with all of Germany, that sweet, old Mahlsdorf may have collaborated with the Stasis during the communist regime and lied about other parts of her past. Germany’s reaction is incorporated into the play, with talk shows and news reports demonstrating how difficult it is to judge, or understand, the past, especially in such brutal time periods.
In the end, Wright concludes that he needs to believe her story as much as she does, leaving the audience hanging. The personal bias in the play is both its best and worst aspect; it’s a unique feature that I sometimes felt hindered a truly clear report of what happened. Perhaps that’s what Wright is getting across — history is made of personal biases that become “fact” but for such an interesting story, it seems a shame that nothing is clearly resolved in the end. Mahlsdorf is the only one who will ever know the truth of her story — and she shares it hesitantly with Wright. Even the “facts,” from the Stasi regime, paint contrasting pictures with each other. The play ends with, presumably, an actual recording of Wright and Mahlsdorf.
In Tulsa, the play was set in one of the smaller rooms at the Performing Arts Center, giving it a more intimate feeling, as Brown could get close to the audience. The set had a phonograph on one end and a table with chairs on another, with the backing of Mahlsdorf’s “museum.” The museum consisted of cabinets stacked high, tightly fitted, stuffed with trinkets, signs and pictures that Brown would reference during the play. This setup hid props until their moment of use, and graciously concealed them again when their time was over. Overall, the set felt warm and cozy, as if one was really in Mahlsdorf’s museum, coming over for a cup of tea.
One of the most impressive aspects of the play is that it’s a one man show. Brown acts as everyone involved in the story, from Mahlsdorf to Wright to the Stasi who interact with her — over 30 characters. With each character, Brown’s body language shifted. As Mahlsdorf, Brown clasped his hands together, laughing demurely like the fun grandmother everyone wishes to have; as Mahlsdorf’s tough, lesbian aunt, he took up space and deepened his voice. Brown fully inhabited each character, giving even the nameless regime officers and reporters personality. Being only a one man show highlighted Mahsldorf’s loneliness.
The conflicting tales of Mahlsdorf’s life, the one man show and the unique way Wright chose to write the play all make it one to see. Unfortunately, the play closed before this issue came out, but check out the Tulsa Project Theatre’s other performances throughout the year.

Post Author: Michaela Flonard