“I Am My Own Wife” is a play about transvestism and the lead character is indeed a notable real-life German eccentric, born biologically male and named Lothar Berfelde who in early adolescence began dressing as a female and adopted the name Charlotte von Mahlsdorf.
That he did so openly under the viselike grip of homophobic Nazi rule and the later German Communist regime is utterly mysterious and yet how he did it is a layered tale of ambiguity and ambivalence.
Tenacious in his gender switch until his death in 2002 at age 74, Charlotte presents herself as a heroine in this play, which won the Tony Awards for best play and actor and Pulitzer Prize for best drama. The playwright Doug Wright (who is also a character on stage) nevertheless casts a darker shadow across her role playing.
Charlotte is finally what Winston Churchill once famously called the nation of Russia — “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.”
“But perhaps there is a key,” Churchill also added. And the key to Charlotte is her need to survive with her identity intact. For the sake of survival, all is permitted. For the sake of survival, people may lie to themselves, about themselves and also to others. This same psychic tactic is sometimes a ruse meant to effect self-cure, through the freer expression of those drives that would otherwise fester in repression and neurosis — or worse.
And lies can be as important as the truth, a point of view explored at length by the distinguished ethicist Sissela Bok in her books “Lying and Secrets: On the Ethics of Concealment and Revelation.”
We live our lives, this play declares, as the creator of narratives. We tell “stories” about ourselves. Our reliability as narrators is always contingent, a fact that troubled Wright greatly as he constructed this play from a series of interviews he initially carried out with Charlotte, during which encounters he fell in some senses in love with her distinctive persona. Thus, when her credibility came into question — indeed, when it began to appear that all along she had perhaps been collaborating successively with the Nazis and then the East German secret police (the notorious Stasi) — Wright was heart-broken and slammed head first into a giant writer’s block that stalled the work of turning the interviews into the play.
As for Charlotte herself, we are led to believe that she had convinced herself at least that what she claimed to be true was true. But for Wright, it took the director Moises Kaufman, who also brought the murder of Matthew Shepard to the stage in “The Laramie Project,” to work with Wright in three weeks of workshops at the Sundance Theatre Lab in 2000 to help the playwright find his way through to putting all the questions about Charlotte onto the stage inhabited by a total of 35 characters.
At the Signature Theatre, the actor Andrew Long turned to 25-year-old director Alan Paul to helm the production in which Long plays all 35 roles, from Charlotte herself to her brutal and abusive Nazi father to the playwright Doug Wright and myriad other characters in her life.
Signature’s artistic director Eric Schaeffer has said that doing “I Am My Own Wife” is for an actor a little like climbing Mount Everest, so he allowed Long to select his own director as a guide on this perilous ascent. And Paul in turn threw out all stage directions and approached the play, which opened on Broadway in 2003 with Kaufman directing and was also performed in D.C. in 2005, as a clean slate.
The result is a darker take on the play. No one should see this play expecting to see something kinky and slinky in sequins and boas or that Long will play Charlotte as a finger-popping RuPaul. Instead, Long plays Charlotte almost nun-like as a conventional Berlin hausfrau, wearing a simple black dress and a string of pearls with sensible shoes, not high heels.
She is an elegantly mannered throwback, a relic of the past in every sense, someone whose home in Berlin became her private museum housing Kaiser Wilhelm II-era antiques, objets d’art, and especially gramophones and clocks. But she not only collected objects, she drew people to her and she even quietly opened her doors to prostitutes and others of the demi-monde seeking a trysting place.
Who could have guessed that so off-center a concept for a play would attract a mainstream audience? But it has! In a one-man play, Long is a tour de force, gliding from role to role, from accent to accent, changing expressions and postures, gradations and colorations, in a stunning portrayal of all the many characters in Charlotte’s life.
It is an extraordinary work and deserves a large audience. Her life was real. Her story is an indomitable riddle. And attention must be paid.