By DIANNE RUSSELL
Early in the play I Am My Own Wife, a blackboard behind the star John Tufts reads “a world turned upside-down.” As the story unravels, one understands just how truly tangled and out of sync Charlotte von Mahlsdorf’s world was, yet she prevailed. And the further realization that the play is based on a true story, makes her tale of survival as a man living as a woman in East Germany during World War II and postwar Communism, even more staggering.
John Tufts, who masterfully transitions among a mind-boggling 30 plus characters—men and women, young and old—takes the audience on Charlotte’s journey, slipping seamlessly in and out of each character. On the outset, this monumental feat would appear almost impossible, but Tufts imprints each character with specific voice intonations and singular, but nuanced, gestures. Even in silence, when Tufts put a flat hand gently on her skirt, I knew it was Charlotte.
As told by Charlotte at 64 years of age, refined and graceful in her dress and pearls, the audience learns about her life. Born Lothar Berfelde in Berlin-Mahlsdorf, Germany in 1928, she identified with being a young girl even as a child. When WWII broke out, her father, a member of the Nazi party, forced her to join the Hitler Youth. At 16, in an act of self-defense, Charlotte killed her father and was sent to a detention center. In 1945, she began living more openly as a woman and during the following decade established her antique collection as a museum.
But her struggle continued. In 1974, the East German government, in an attempt to cut off the gay community’s ability to congregate, took over the museum. Eventually, her control was reinstated, and the museum provided a safe meeting place for gays and lesbians in East Berlin prior to the collapse of the wall. Charlotte is credited with playing a crucial role in the history of transgender Europeans.
The story of how her life came to the stage is a fascinating one. In 1993, after a German documentary (I Am My Own Woman) was made of Charlotte’s life, Doug Wright, the playwright, traveled to East Germany to interview her. Over the next two years, he accumulated more than 500 pages of transcripts and correspondence. In 1997, he began writing the play, and it premiered in 2003. The next year, it won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, the Lambda Literary Award for Drama, and Best Play at the Annual Tony Awards.
And after attending Sunday’s performance, it’s abundantly clear why it has won so many awards. In this production, everything works together to bring Charlotte’s world alive. All the behind the scene designers should be commended. With antiques hanging from the ceiling, the set is the perfect backdrop for Charlotte’s story to unfold. The everyday objects transform the stage into a startling contrast to what’s happening in the outside world.
Although this is John Tufts’ debut at Laguna Playhouse and a return engagement for Director Jenny Sullivan, this isn’t their first joint effort. She previously directed him in this production. Their superb collaboration brings Charlotte (and those in her world) alive.
Sullivan says, “Mr. Wright called his play a one-woman show performed by a man.”
And after leaving the theater, I couldn’t imagine anyone other than John Tufts as Charlotte.
Artistic Director of Laguna Playhouse, Anne E. Wareham, says, “I first saw John Tufts in this Jenny Sullivan-directed production two years ago and knew I had to bring it to Laguna Playhouse.”
But John was booked until now, so he promised her a slot, and she waited.
And it was well worth the wait.
As Charlotte talks about her broken museum artifacts, she says, “I did not refinish the pieces…These things, they are proof of its history. And so you must leave it.” She says she is an artifact herself, and history has proven her right. She is an heirloom of the highest quality.
In that world turned upside-down, Charlotte von Mahlsdorf managed to maintain her humanity and, after all this time, it still speaks to ours.
I Am My Own Wife runs through Jan 28. For ticket information, go to: www.lagunaplayhouse.com or call 949-497-2787.