Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, née Lothar Berfelde, was an East Berlin transvestite who survived murderous Nazis, the devastation of World War II, and the repressive communist regime with Stasi secret police informers everywhere. Through it all, she operated an antique store, curated a small museum, and ran a cabaret for gays and lesbians for over 30 years. William Hodgson embodies Charlotte and claims the stage with great skill and flair in Doug Wright’s fact-based, Pulitzer Prize winning “I Am My Own Wife.”
The format of the play is episodic, with flashes forward and back. We meet Lothar as a teen caught trying on women’s clothes by his aunt, who wears only men’s clothes. Recognizing the signs of gender ambiguity, she comforts him saying they were both “tricked by nature”. Thenceforth, Lothar would be Charlotte.
Charlotte was a lover of beauty. Early on she became obsessed collecting song cylinders for Edison gramaphone players. She was so dedicated to the 15,000 cylinders she claimed to own that she would never have a radio or television. She loved the likes of Mendelssohn and Offenbach, but Jewish composers were verboten by the Nazis in WWII, so she cleverly affixed non-offending labels in place of the originals to protect the cylinders and herself. Her later interest in clocks and other objets d’art would lead to her profession and to her alliance with Alfred Kirschman, who would be imprisoned as a result of their dealings.
As would be expected, life was not always easy for Charlotte. Her father was an abuser. She claimed to have bludgeoned him to death with a rolling pin, resulting a sentence to Tegel Penitentiary, from which she escaped during the confusion of war. At various times, she was attacked, and her possessions vandalized. She was arrested again by Nazis and expected to face a firing squad.
The title suggests Charlotte’s own duality, and at the same time, verifies that she remained single. She lacked close kinship and friendship, yet, through her cabaret, she risked everything to facilitate others sharing life and love. Like anyone, she was trying to find a safe and comforting harbor in a world that can be uncaring and threatening.
Charlotte is revealed through interviews and research conducted by playwright Doug Wright, who was fascinated by her life story. He met her after German reunification, when Charlotte received the Medal of Honor. But the visibility of the honor led to investigations into her past. How could her censured activities evade the ubiquitous Stasi for decades? Wright found abundant conflicting evidence, and perhaps we will never be sure of the truth.
Wright himself becomes a major character in this solo play and one of the many that Hodgson voices with great skill. Hodgson speaks both German and English as Charlotte, with ein gut Deutch akzent. He also uses multiple American accents and other foreign accents in English, mostly as reporters. More importantly, as he glides around the venue he creates characterizations that are well differentiated without being reduced to stereotypes. He keeps the audience constantly engaged.
The production is staged in a large, pine-panel and brick parlor setting at Haba Na Haba, a Berkeley home used as a venue for occasional small performances. It is a warm and intimate setting that suits the performance well, offering chairs and sofas on three sides of the performing area. Fallon Blaser provides piano accompaniment with period music that enhances the performance, and Fallon Burner punctuates the proceedings with two tap dance performances.
“I Am My Own Wife” plays at Haaba Na Haba House through March 20. For further information click here.
“I Am My Own Wife” by Doug Wright, produced by Ubuntu Theatre Project. Director: Michael Socrates Boran. Set: Mary Hill and Fallon Burner. Sound: Taylor Gonzales. Lighting: Stephanie Johnson.
All chacters performed by William Hodgson.
Piano accompaniment by Fallon Blaser.
Tap dance performance by Fallon Burner.