'Wife' taps into survival instinct

Published July 17, 2005

ST. PETERSBURG - I Am My Own Wife was one of the most unlikely hits of many a theater season. Who could have ever predicted that a one-man show about a gay transvestite from the former East Berlin would win both the Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award for best new play?

That's precisely what happened in 2004, and now American Stage is giving Doug Wright's play its regional premiere, with Mark Chambers playing Charlotte von Mahlsdorf and more than 30 other characters.

Charlotte, based on a real person (born Lothar Berfelde in 1928), was an antiques dealer who managed to be openly gay and go about her life in drag and somehow survive both the Nazi and Communist regimes. Yet I Am My Own Wife is not just a gay play, or a drag show, because sex and gender issues are not the main point.

"Like a lot of exceptional plays, it transcends its own specificity," director Todd Olson said one afternoon last week, taking a break from rehearsal with Chambers. "That he's a transvestite is almost beside the point. It really has much more to say about endurance during treacherous times. How one survives during a time of war."

Chambers added that the audience would quickly come to ignore his costume, a simple black dress, kerchief, sensible shoes and a string of pearls. "They see me in a dress. Then they have to accept it and get on with the story."

Chambers, who lives in San Francisco, is no stranger to roles in which he plays a woman, or, for that matter, a man playing a woman. At American Stage he has played Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest, as well as a drag queen who knows his Dickens in A Tale of Two Cities.

He has starred as another East German transvestite in the rock musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch. He has been Mary Sunshine in Chicago, Frankenfurter in The Rocky Horror Show, Fraulein Kost in Cabaret, Bertha Bumiller in Greater Tuna and characters in quite a few other shows that required him to hit his marks in 6-inch pumps.

"I bet I have as big a resume of female roles as some actresses have," he said.

In Chambers' most celebrated cross-dressing episode, he was chronicled on the front page of the New York Times for a female part he didn't play in a 1996 production of Steel Magnolias in Memphis, Tenn. A onetime hairdresser in Memphis, he was going to play Truvy, the owner of a beauty parlor, but just days before opening night the comedy's author, Robert Harling, insisted that the theater recast the role with a woman or lose the performance rights. Chambers ended up delivering the curtain speech in drag.

Charlotte is unlike these other roles in that little about her is camp. "She's not flamboyant," Chambers said. "She could be your maiden aunt."

Wright, a gay American who includes himself as a character in the play, learned about Charlotte after the Berlin wall opened. He conducted hours of interviews with her during the early 1990s on trips to Germany. Around the same time, von Mahlsdorf wrote a best-selling autobiography and was the subject of a documentary, both titled I Am My Own Woman.

Chambers has seen the documentary, as well as read the book, but he doesn't try to imitate the real Charlotte, whose sex life is treated more prominently in Rosa von Praunheim's film than in the play.

"The beautiful words of the script are the most important thing, but it does help to know that this was a real live person," Chambers said. "It's fun to see her. You just marvel at somebody who looked the way she did, lived her life the way she did, in those trying times. He looked enough like a real woman to fool a lot of people, but he didn't try to fool a lot of people."

At first Wright intended to portray Charlotte as a gay role model, "an antidote for a community too often besieged by public condemnation and internalized self-loathing," as he puts it in the play's introduction. "She was a bona fide gay hero."

But then Wright discovered a disturbing fact about his hero. After the fall of communism, files of the East German secret police, the Stasi, were made available. When he got Charlotte's file, he found that she had been an informant. Her collaboration had resulted in the arrest of at least one person.

For Wright, the revelation gave him writer's block for six years. The eventual public disclosure of Charlotte's Stasi file caused a scandal in Germany. Much of the second act focuses on the media firestorm and the playwright's conflicted relationship with his character.

Many East Germans spied for the Stasi, and Charlotte's duplicity actually made her a more compelling character, dramatically speaking.

"I think she was a product of her time," Olson said. "I think she survived how she needed to survive at a time when husbands spied on their wives, children spied on their parents. I think people did what they had to do. I'm sure she wasn't proud of it. Did she betray the better angels of her spirit? Yeah, and for that she was imperfect."

Von Mahlsdorf moved to Sweden to escape the furor. He died in 2002 and never saw Wright's play.

Originally, American Stage planned to do The Exonerated as the final play of its current season this summer, but the cost of paying its cast of 10 actors threatened to break the theater's budget. I Am My Own Wife had been scheduled for the 2005-06 season, but the theater got permission from the publisher to do it now, becoming the second company to stage Wright's play since the Broadway production and its tour, with Jefferson Mays as Charlotte. The Exonerated will be performed as a benefit starring Sandy Duncan July 30-31.

"It worked out great for us," Olson said. "We end up saving a little money, which is helpful, and we get to premiere this remarkable work."

- John Fleming can be reached at 727 893-8716 or fleming@sptimes.com


I Am My Own Wife by Doug Wright opens Friday and runs through Aug. 14 at American Stage, St. Petersburg; previews Wednesday, Thursday at 7:30 p.m. Performances: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday; 8 p.m. Friday; 3 and 8 p.m. Saturday; 3 p.m. matinees Saturday and Sunday. $21-$34. Pay what you can July 26, Aug. 2. Student rush tickets $10, 30 minutes prior to curtain.q(727) 823-7529.