Transvestite survivor an inspiration

Extraordinary tale doesn’t shy away from tough questions

At the centre of Doug Wright’s Tony Award- and Pulitzer Prize-winning play I Am My Own Wife is an extraordinary tale about an extraordinary person in extraordinary circumstances.

So many “extra ordinaries” guarantee at the very least a riveting story.

Calgary’s Third Street Theatre is closing its inaugural season with the staging of this one-man show which tells the true story of Charlotte von Mahlsdorf. Born in Germany in 1928 she began life as Lothar Berfelde but with early encouragement from an aunt who urged her nephew to read a tome on transgenderism she decided to dress and live as a woman.

Von Mahlsdorf faced significant challenges in her life including an abusive Nazi father who she claims to have killed in defence of herself and her mother. (Among other elements of von Mahlsdorf’s story the play raises some questions about the veracity of this claim.)

She also survived two of history’s most repressive regimes: the Third Reich and the Communist government that took hold of East Germany following the Second World War. Both regimes were notorious for their lack of tolerance so von Mahlsdorf’s ability to live openly — and survive — as a transvestite is remarkable in and of itself.

Wright interviewed von Mahlsdorf extensively while preparing to write I Am My Own Wife and the play addresses his playwriting journey as much as it does her story. Not only does this give the play a sense of immediacy and intimacy it also encourages audience members to decide for themselves about the grey areas of von Mahlsdorf’s life.

For example there is the question about whether or not von Mahlsdorf informed for the Stasi (the much-feared Eastern German secret police). Wright presents von Mahlsdorf’s explanation as well as evidence from her Stasi file. He never “sets the record straight” so to speak one way or the other but instead lets the audience decide what to believe.

Directed by Kevin McKendrick I Am My Own Wife stars Paul Welch who has to assume some 36 characters — many with German accents — throughout the show.

Welch offers a sympathetic and instantly likable portrayal of Mahlsdorf — you don’t want to believe she was ever a Stasi informant — and he transforms seamlessly from character to character. Titles are projected on a screen above the stage to delineate the scenes and guide the audience through the play’s action.

I thoroughly enjoyed the production and while there were spots that dragged a bit I don’t consider this the fault of the actor or director. You see von Mahlsdorf had a penchant for late-19th-century furniture and household items as well as for early phonographs and similar record-playing devices. In fact she founded the Gründerzeit Museum as a repository for her extensive collection. (In the Museum’s basement there were even relics she had rescued from a historic gay and lesbian club which the government bulldozed. The space became an illicit gathering place for the gay and lesbian community in East Germany.) During some of von Mahlsdorf’s lengthy ruminations and reflections on her phonographs and old furniture the play’s narrative tends to stall.

The sound design courtesy of Trevor Leigh lends a nostalgic and wistful feel to the production and Deitra Kalyn’s set design is nothing short of inspired. The backdrop for the action is a wall-sized bookshelf filled with a plethora of pencil drawings illustrating phonographs and other such antiquities representative of the museum’s contents.

Von Mahlsdorf’s story is well worth hearing and Third Street Theatre certainly does it justice. The production inspired me to find out more about this fascinating woman who lived life boldly and on her own terms… in a way so few people are brave enough to do.

I Am My Own Wife runs until May 4 at Epcor Centre’s Motel. For show information go to thirdstreet.ca.