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S/he speaks; we believe

' Am My Own Wife' makes a gay German transvestite a role model for us all.

June 17, 2005|Daryl H. Miller | Times Staff Writer

A figure appears at the door in a simple black dress, matching head scarf and single strand of pearls. The wearer, a man, surely is aware that we're gawking at his attire. Yet unselfconsciously, he proceeds to lead us on a tour of what turns out to be a private museum in Mahlsdorf, an eastern suburb of Berlin.

"Come in, please," he says as he heads toward one of the groupings of late-19th century furniture kept on display in his home. "There is room for everyone, yes?"

The words, so simple on their surface, echo with meaning in "I Am My Own Wife," the entrancing Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winning play being presented by the Geffen Playhouse at the Wadsworth Theatre in West L.A. The question, we come to realize, could be applied to the world in general, where if indeed there is room for everyone, it is because people like our host helped to make it that way, by being unapologetically true to themselves.

"I Am My Own Wife" tells the story of Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, a gay transvestite who survived the Nazis, then the Communists -- all while dressed in much the same attire as that worn by actor Jefferson Mays for his vividly nuanced, Tony-winning portrayal of her. (And with that, let's shift to feminine pronouns, as Charlotte always thought of herself as a woman born into a man's body.)

American playwright Doug Wright learned about Charlotte -- born Lothar Berfelde in 1928 -- after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Tipped off by a friend who worked for U.S. News & World Report, Wright soon found himself traveling regularly to the former East Germany to interview Charlotte. At about the same time, the rest of the world discovered her too, as subject of a 1992 documentary by Rosa von Praunheim and as author of a big-selling autobiography.

Wright came away from his interviews with some 500 pages of transcripts -- and a massive case of writer's block. In the course of his research, he had learned that Charlotte, like so many citizens of the East German state, had been watched by the Stasi, or secret police. The force's files claimed that she had willingly informed on others. Wright couldn't reconcile this with the principled person he had come to know.

It wasn't until 2000 that Wright, working with Mays and director Moises Kaufman, began to find a way to write about Charlotte. He let himself be a character in the story, freely admitting to the mixture of wonder and confusion that Charlotte stirred in him. Mays proved adept at playing not only Charlotte but Wright as well -- along with the journalist friend, John Marks, and more than 30 additional characters who emerge from Charlotte's stories. And so the piece became the solo show now on view in Los Angeles and headed, in August, back to La Jolla Playhouse, where it underwent some of its development.

Mays is a wily channeler of Charlotte, who died in 2002. He portrays her as a grandmotherly figure who speaks demurely but firmly, in phrases that can seem almost musical. The effect is mesmerizing yet somehow odd -- a backward spin that, even more than Mays' split-second shifts of character, makes his performance so astounding.

Charlotte's sentences sound rehearsed, as if she had spent hours considering each word to ensure maximum impact. Such was Charlotte's charm -- and mystery -- as documented not only here but in the Von Praunheim film "I Am My Own Woman," which makes for fascinating supplemental viewing, if you can get your hands on it.

Charlotte's tour through her collection of furniture, gramophones and bric-a-brac gives way to a tour through her life. Stoically, she recounts youthful years with an abusive father. She recalls her near-murder, in the Nazi regime's final hours, as SS officers rounded her up as a suspected deserter. She describes blacking out windows during the Communist years to prevent the watchful Stasi from observing the gay and lesbian get-togethers held in her home.

Such anecdotes are interspersed among Charlotte's loving descriptions of her furniture. Through the translucent wall of Derek McLane's set, lights reveal credenzas, gramophones and clocks, stacked floor to ceiling.

The second half, which focuses on the contents of the Stasi file, heads in a markedly different direction. Indeed, the tone is so different from the worshipful first act that one might assume at first that the story has lost its way. The switch, however, is in keeping with Wright's crisis of faith as he realizes that history can be reworded and skewed, depending on who's telling it.

Clearly, the question troubles him. Yet it recedes. For while Charlotte, like her beloved furniture, may be frilly and a bit exotic, she is also solid and functional. She seems somehow inevitable. Permanent.

She -- or the image that she put forward, at least -- is a valuable role model, if people will but enter her museum and take a look around.

*

'I Am My Own Wife'

Where: Geffen Playhouse

at the Wadsworth Theatre, Veterans Affairs campus, 11301 Wilshire Blvd., West L.A.

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 4 and 8:30 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays

Ends: July 10

Price: $34 to $85

Contact: (213) 365-3500 or www.Ticketmaster.com

Running time: 1 hours, 50 minutes

Also

Where: La Jolla Playhouse, UC San Diego campus

When: Aug. 9 through Sept. 11

Price: $39 to $58

Contact: (858) 550-1010 or www.LaJollaPlayhouse.com

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