Call Charlotte von Mahlsdorf (1928-2002) a tarnished if fascinating survivor of both the Nazis and the Communists. The East German gay transvestite, born Lothar Berfelde, donated a large collection of saved Jewish music, including works by Mendelssohn and Offenbach, to Berlin’s Jewish Museum. Still, Charlotte did not shrink from putting the furniture of deported Jews in her home.
While a 15-year-old Lothar murdered his abusive Nazi father, Max (who may have killed his mother), Charlotte informed on her gay friend and black market clock dealer Alfred Kirschner to East Germany’s Stasi (the secret police). This morally ambiguous Berliner is the focus of Doug Wright’s 2003 Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning play “I Am My Own Wife,” now in a properly complex portrayal by Gabriel Graetz in the Cabinet of Curiosities Festival presented by Theatre on Fire and the Charlestown Work Theatre.
Wright first met and interviewed von Mahlsdorf – dressed in a black peasant dress, matching orthopedic shoes and a simple scarf – in 1993. Their meetings became the basis of his vivid two-act play.
The first act details Lothar’s turbulent childhood, his time at a youth prison for killing his father and his transformation into Charlotte. Here Wright learns of Lothar’s tenacious lesbian aunt, who gives him a seminal study of transvestites by Jewish gay Magnus Hirschfeld, whose books were burned by the Nazis. “This book will be your bible,” she predicts. His mentoring aunt, he later recalls, advises him to be “as smart as the snakes” and take care in the lion’s den that is Germany. For his part, gay Bible belt playwright Wright describes his singular interviewee as a museum in her own right and credits von Mahlsdorf with “teaching me a history I never knew I had.”
During the equally dark second act, Charlotte sees strong similarities between the Nazis and the Stasi in that history. Graetz’s strong work in “I Am My Own Wife” should have all theatergoers giving timely attention to their own respective challenges as well as to the ones in Wright’s worthy play.
“I Am My Own Wife”, presented by Theatre on Fire and the Charlestown Working Theater, plays through May 27.