I Am My Own Wife at Center Stage – Review by Julie Benoit

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My brother and I went with a friend of ours to see a matinee show of I am My Own Wife today at The Everyman Theatre in Baltimore. I knew nothing about the show but I have never been so awed by a performance in a play. Everything about it was amazing, all of the components were there and on; the production, the set, the acting, and even the audience.

I Am My Own Wife is play by playwright Doug Wright. It is a captivating story about identity. It is a story of a real-life man (( Charlotte von Mahlsdorf )) who survived the Nazis and the East German Communist regimes to live in Berlin as a transvestite for more than 30 years or so. The play is not your typical coming of age story, but I guess it is a coming of age story of sorts.

Charlotte von Mahlsdorf was played by one of Baltimore’s best actors, Bruce Nelson. Charlotte was born in 1928 as a male, Lothar Berfelde, in east gremany but chose to live most of his life as woman. After catching him dressing up in women’s clothes around the age of 15 his aunt gave him a book about homosexuality and transvestites that would change his life forever. She told him the book would be his bible. The story of Charlotte von Mahlsdorf is a pretty fascinating one, as she kills her nazi father with a rolling pin when she was just a young boy. She had the obsession of a collector and had the record players and records to prove. She also collected antiques and clocks as they came from other peoples homes that had been invaded or destroyed. Eventually Charlotte started a museum that showed her collection of clocks and gramaphones. Also In the basement of the museum was a secret gay nightclub that was highly attended. The play goes into detail of all of these stories that tie together the life of Charlotte von Mahlsdorf.

There is something really special and quite interesting in these stories and how they are shared; the passing along of them. That is how we as humans understand history… through stories we have been told. And then we go and pass them along and share them with others. It is interesting to put together the story of Charlottes life through these stories and interviews. Charlotte was a collector of record players , records and antique furniture. She collected pieces of history and there was a story for every object she had. She did not want to ever refinish a piece of furniture because then she would be covering up a part of the story.

I am not certain the truth of the story but regardless of how accurate the facts of the story are, it was told very well, and I enjoyed it quite a bit. Never during the play did I care so much of whether what was being said was true or not. I honestly just enjoyed listening to the stories that were being shared and passed along, I also enjoyed the fantasies that I was able to conceive.

The play is not like one I have ever seen, it is told in the first person and it is kind of more of a description rather than a re-enactment. The play was just one performer (( Bruce Nelson )) who played what turns out to be like 25 plus different roles. Some of the characters appear for only a second, for a quick comment or two, while some of the other characters are more developed and you get to know them a bit more.

Nelson’s performance is so dead on, and pretty much perfect to say the least. It is pretty amazing to watch him switch characters with the simple switch of an accent, the switch of a voice, and even a subtle switch in his posture. The focus is never steered away from Nelson, the central character, and the only character. The audience is really able to know which character he is playing at all times. He goes from having the bourgeois mannerisms of a German woman speaking english with a very thick accent to your typical Texan man with a thick and drawled out Texas accent. He is having conversations with three different people at times and he is all three people. He changes characters flawlessly and does so in the blink of an eye. As some of these characters have back and forth conversations throughout the play Nelson switched in and out of personas and he does not miss a beat.

This production does not really rely on your standard costume changes or dramatic shifts in lighting that usually take place within a play, but rather Nelson wears the same outfit (( with the exception of one moment where he has something over his costume)) throughout the play a black cardigan, a black skirt, a black headdress, black nylons, clunky black shoes and 2 strings of pearls around his neck that he plays with so subtly. The lighting never changes, it stays the same. All of these static things really allow the audience to concentrate their focus on the character that Nelson is playing.

Nelsons performance was great, it really was, so great that the woman next to me who had brought her daughter to the show after seeing the same play in NY years ago said it was by far way better than the broadway production she had seen a couple of years ago. The picture that is developed at the end of this play is so worth seeing. I am My Own Wife is at the Everyman Theatre though 22 February 2009… go see this play, you will be very happy you did.

– Julie Benoit

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