I Am My Own Wife, the Jungle Theater’s new one-man show telling one of history’s truly compelling sagas, defies easy description.
Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, the show’s subject, is a man who has been dressing as a woman since age 16 in Nazi Germany. Playwright Doug Wright tells her true story through a series of interviews he conducted with her in the early 1990s, a portion of which is played back to the audience on an antique phonograph at the end of the play.
Charlotte’s extraordinary story is undeniably compelling. It is a tale of cross-dressing after being influenced by a staunchly lesbian aunt, of killing her father, of collecting extraordinary pre-World War artifacts and preserving them from the destructive forces in East Germany for 50 years, of brushes with the Stasi, and gaining and losing status as Germany’s cause célèbre at the end of her life.
Bradley Greenwald, who plays Charlotte, her interviewer Doug, and his translator John, is masterful in each role. His perfectly nuanced low-German accent deftly reveals Charlotte’s practiced façade in the face of memory, accusations, and praise. His quick transitions into Doug and John, although very brief, are equally impressive and expressive.
Director Joel Sass’ adept hand is equally evident, most particularly in the set’s highly German efficiency. Every prop has a purpose and a place, and all are meaningfully displayed and explained to us through Charlotte’s narrative. A beautiful working phonograph provides the set’s centerpiece.
The material of I Am My Own Wife is difficult to grapple with. Is the show a celebration of Charlotte’s victory over her struggles? Is it an expose decrying her methods for survival? Is it the sad result of one young man’s dream to be a writer?
Because I Am My Own Wife is so complex, any of these theories could suffice. My own theory is that the show is a case study about how complicated the study of history can be. Does it matter if Charlotte did or didn’t lie about her experiences? Does it matter if she cooperated with the Stasi in order to survive as a transvestite and save her precious antiques?
As Wright himself concludes, it doesn’t matter. Instead of making Charlotte a hero or a villain, he shows her warts and all, and in doing so makes her someone we can all respect, even if we don’t agree with her methods.