Solo actor Nick Garrison has created a tour d’ force by creating 30 individual characters; he brings each to life with just small changes of voice, facial expression and posture. This is the story of Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, a German man who openly but circumspectly lived through the Nazi and Communist regimes as a woman.
Playwright Doug Wright had the opportunity to interview Charlotte over several years, before she moved to Sweden. Wright’s production is based on Charlotte’s published autobiography, his taped responses of her answers to his questions, and her further reminiscences.
Wright considered her a dear friend but didn’t know what to think about the revelation that Charlotte had been a Stasi informer. Wright decided to base his story on what Charlotte told him.
The title, “I Am My Own Wife” is the English translation of Charlotte’s reply to her mother’s question, “Shouldn’t you be getting married?” In German, the phrase, “Ich bin meine eigene Frau” can be translated as I am my own woman or I am my own wife. She didn’t need a wife.
Eric Andor’s costume for Garrison was very simple. He wore a light grey, long-sleeved sweater with a grey wrap-around dress, a double-string of white pearls (very June Cleaver) and stockings with very, very, sensible black shoes. He wore a black scarf, like a bandana, on his head which he seldom removed.
Jennifer Zeyl’s set looked very simple as well; however it contained a surprise, too. It consisted of a small table with two chairs, a side table, a sideboard with a wooden box on it, and a large plain wall. When Charlotte reveals her private collection in the museum basement to Wright, the shelves behind the screened wall was lit to show many pieces of furniture and ornaments. Charlotte held many parties in the basement with her guests being gay, lesbian, transgender, and transvestite, sado-machochistic, and all the sexual opportunities. The book her aunt gave her early in her life came to life at her parties.
Director Jerry Manning kept the characters so believable with the subtle differences delineating each person. Garrison’s Charlotte always seemed graceful, respectful and at ease in her body. In a wonderful exposition of character in voice, facial expression and posture, the other 29 people came to life in the body of Nick Garrison. He was completely at ease in each character.
When he was still young, Lothar Befelde, his mother Gretchen and his siblings visited his aunt on a large East Prussian horse farm. His aunt, Tante in German, wore jodhpurs and boots to work on the farm – a man’s work clothes. While Lothar was there, he discovered his aunt’s closet and tried on her neglected dresses. Tante came in while he was admiring himself in the mirror and told Lothar that they were both in the wrong bodies. She should have been a man and he should have been a woman. Then Tante gave him a book about all the sexual possibilities, telling him it would open his eyes and answer his questions. This set him on the road to ultimately live openly as Charlotte von Mahlsdorf. (His family lived in the in the Malsdorf area of Berlin.)
Lothar’s father Max had been a Nazi since the ‘20s, a brutal and controlling man. Lothar’s mother Gretchen and his siblings were held firmly under Max’s thumb; he allowed no deviations from his chosen paths. Tante told Lothar, “If he beats her (Gretchen) one more time, he’ll kill her.” So when Max came to get his family at the farm, Tanta told Max that Gretchen wanted a divorce. Max refused to consider relinquishing control and took his family home to be terrorized, which he was good at after such long practice.
After World War II began, he helped an antique dealer clear out the homes of the deported Jewish families. He occasionally took an item home. He was fascinated with the furniture and tchokes from the 1860s to 1890s when Biedermeier furniture was popular. Later generations considered it too old-fashioned and fussy, so Lothar had free reign to take any kind of household item from that period because it was not going to sell well.
When Lothar was about 16 or 17, his father told him to stop being a sexual deviant or he’d kill him. Then Max would’d kill his mother, then his sister, then his brother. Later, when Lothar heard his father coming up the stairs, he was terrorized, thinking his father was coming to kill him and then the rest of the family. In a panic, Lothar killed him by beating in his head with a rolling pin. After examination at an insane asylum, he was sentenced to a youth detention facility, where he learned a lot about where to find what he wanted. He escaped when the Allies bombed the area around the prison and the walls started collapsing. The guards were shouting to the inmates, “Run, run. Be safe!”
After he escaped from prison, he began collecting furniture and household items in earnest from bombed houses and apartments. At this time, Lothar dropped his given name and became Charlotte von Mahlsdorf fulltime. She opened a museum in her home and displayed, polished, dusted and cleaned her furniture and household items with the gusto of a proud housewife. It was the Gründerzeit Museum, the Museum of Everyday Items.
She was also involved in the restoration of the partially- wrecked Malsdorf manor house. She was so successful, she was given the rights for the manor house for her museum. She had collected thousands of cylinders for Thomas Alva Edison’s first commercial recording device as well as early phonograph records. During the war, she pasted false labels on the recordings of Jewish composers, since it was unsafe to have anything Jewish. After the war, she took a sponge with soap and water and removed the false labels.
How she survived as Charlotte is the real crux of the production. Her ingenuity and ingenuousness enabled her to survive the Nazi regime. She also thrived during the following Communist regime. After the Berlin Wall came down and Germany was reunified, she became a revered figure until the files of the East German secret police, the Stasi, were released to the public. These files showed that Charlotte was an official informant, reporting on her friends and acquaintances. This raised questions about her reliability and that of her autobiography. To escape the harassment after she fell from public grace, she moved to Sweden, returning to Malsdorf for a visit in 2002 where she died of heart failure at age 74.
Playwright Doug Wright had the opportunity to interview Charlotte over several years before she moved to Sweden. Wright’s production is based on Charlotte’s autobiography, his recordings of her answers to his questions, and her further reminiscences. Wright considered her a dear friend but didn’t know what to think about the later revelation that Charlotte had been an informer. Wright decided to base his story on what Charlotte told him.
Director Jerry Manning kept the characters so believable with the subtle differences delineating the each. Garrison’s Charlotte always seemed graceful, she fluttered her fingers a lot, respectful and at ease in her body. In a wonderful exposition of character in voice, facial expression and posture, the other 29 people came to life in the body of Nick Garrison. He was completely at ease in each character
“I Am My Own Wife” plays at the Seattle Repertory Theatre on the north side of Seattle Center. The run has been extended until March 10. For tickets and more information, call the box office at 206-443-2222, or, go online at www.seattlerep.org.