MULTITASKING Shea portrays 30 characters in Wife.
Lothar Berfelde was born both a generation too late and a generation too early, growing up as he did in Berlin when the Nazis were coming to power in the '30s. Charlotte von Mahlsdorf had it somewhat better after the war in Communist East Berlin, but only somewhat. Since Lothar and Charlotte were the same person, it's surprising that she survived at all, especially in good humor, until her death seven years ago, an inspiringly well-adjusted transvestite to the last.
I Am My Own Wife, by Doug Wright, is being staged by 2nd Story Theatre (through October 25), with artistic director Ed Shea tempted back to the stage after a three-year absence. It's no wonder that he took on performing the one-man show himself, since it's a bravura challenge that requires him to slip in and out of some 30 characters in addition to the spirited Charlotte.
The remarkable thing about her story is less the fact that her spirit wasn't crushed -- she remained too purposeful and busy for that -- but that in 1992, the German government awarded this openly gay transvestite the country's highest civilian honor, the Federal Cross of Merit. The culture minister kissed her hand on national television. How civilized.
Shea starts out mutely, scanning the in-the-round audience with a kindly smile, his hands drawn up demurely, in a black house dress and black head scarf. Oddly, Charlotte begins with a lecture about Edison's phonograph, and we see that famous photograph, "His Master's Voice," a dog transfixed before the horn of an early phonograph, which became the RCA logo. This becomes pertinent as we learn that Charlotte became an antiques dealer who collected many of these devices and was fascinated at how they could take her into the scratchy, almost realistic past.
Shea snaps convincingly into many personalities and voices, though there's no getting around the incongruity of always wearing that black babushka. The other characters include Charlotte's Tante Louise, whose farm gave her an excuse for always wearing men's clothing. She gave the boy permission to become the woman saying, "Nature has played a joke on us." But the most significant character is Doug Wright, the playwright. When he interviews Charlotte in the museum of artifacts that she saved from Nazi and Communist destruction, he realizes that "She doesn't run a museum -- she is one!"
Charlotte received the medal of honor for preserving the past, but eventually her own past catches up with her. After the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Communist government, a discovered Stasi file on her reveals that she was one of the one-in-three citizens who, at least nominally, informed on others. Although her cooperation was minimal, her business did benefit from abandoned properties of East Berliners who fled to the West, just as under the Nazis she had received items that belonged to arrested Jews.
Most controversially, and worrying, is whether Charlotte turned in her lover, Alfred Kirchner, who was accused of taking Western currency from GIs who bought his cuckoo clocks. He went to prison but wrote to her from there; we hear a kindly excerpt. Charlotte claimed that he insisted she report him in order to save herself, since the Stasi had the goods on him anyway. Nevertheless, Charlotte was reviled in the press in her own country. She lived in Sweden for seven years at the end of her life, before she died in 2002 during a return visit to Berlin.