Time and history kick us in the backside every few years, transforming our heroes into evildoers, our villains into saviors. Hindsight and perspective can change the stories we live by, making all the difference in the world. Just when we think we've got the whole bad-vs.-good narrative figured out, some weird bit of information comes along to complicate the story all over again. It's our fascinating drive to pin down moral truths that's at the heart of Doug Wright's Pulitzer Prize-winning one-man show I Am My Own Wife, now running at Stages Repertory Theatre.
The story focuses on the American playwright's enigmatic relationship with a German transvestite named Charlotte von Mahlsdorf (Philip Lehl). Born Lothar Berfelde in the 1920s, Mahlsdorf lived a most astonishing life, managing to survive both the Nazis and the Communists while living her life as an open transvestite in East Germany. Wright meets her in the early 1990s after a journalist friend “discovers” her and imagines she might be of interest to the playwright. Wright flies to Germany and promptly becomes so fascinated with the rarified Mahlsdorf, he snaps up some grant money and begins to tape her stories and so begins a long relationship that ends up moving in directions the playwright never anticipated.
The audience, too, is surprised by his discoveries. At first, Mahlsdorf is interesting for her quiet, bird-like manner. This is not a transvestite dressed in spangles and bright red lipstick. In fact, Mahlsdorf wears no makeup, saying she doesn't need it. Instead, she asserts her femininity with a simple black frock, a single strand of white pearls and a pair of black lace-up grandmotherly shoes. Looking like a church lady of the first order, she speaks in a soft voice with a polite tilt of the head. As Lehl plays her, she is not flirtatious, but coy nonetheless.
I Am My Own Wife
Stages Repertory Theatre, 3201 Allen Parkway, 713-527-0123.
Through May 10. $26-$36.
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Mahlsdorf's real love is the antiques she collects. In fact, she doesn't own a television or a radio, preferring an old Victrola-like mechanism for her scratchy music. Her house is a museum of the past, a collection of objects she gently ruminates over. In one scene, she is the docent of her own house, and director Alex Harvey, along with designer Jodi Bobrovsky, have come up with a visually poetic way of handling this moment. Rather than filling the small arena space at Stages with cumbersome life-size relics, Bobrovsky has built the antiques in miniature. When Mahlsdorf shows us an old clock, she pulls a tiny, lovely version of the big thing out of a small box and then sets it down carefully on a table for the audience to ogle. The effect is charming and more museum-like than anything of the real world could possibly be.
As Wright (who is also played by Lehl, as are all the other characters in a virtuoso performance by one of Houston's finest actors) learns more and more about this woman, he grows to admire her courage, her will to survive, her strength. Mahlsdorf remembers standing up to the Nazis on a street one day, fighting with her brutal father to save her mother and saving an entire German bar from the communist wrecking ball. But even as Wright's admiration grows, another force is working to uncover the “real” Mahlsdorf.
Some documentation comes to light that appears to finger Mahlsdorf as a possible mole for the Stasi police. She denies involvement. The playwright confronts Mahlsdorf. As her biggest fan, he adores her, but how did she manage to escape the Nazis and the Communists when so many others lost their lives? Was she an angel or a devil? Mahlsdorf offers no answers, other than that she was human. She is a survivor, one who prefers to tell stories about the things she's collected. As in most powerful tales, the truth ultimately remains ephemeral, gauzy and shadowed by circumstance and history.
Wright's play is most remarkable for its smart commentary on the complicated, very human way we use narrative, creating heroes to help us live through history and all its brutality. When those heroes turn out to be human, our hearts break. We would all like to look back and know, without a doubt, who was right and who was wrong. But if that were possible, we would have no need for stories.