Truth is not only stranger than fiction, it’s also far more complicated, especially when you’re dealing with the unknowable puzzle that is one human life.
“I Am My Own Wife,” a play starring local actor Brandon Demery, tells the real-life story of one unique individual, Charlotte von Mahlsdorf (real name Lothar Berfelde), a gay man who dressed and lived very publicly as a woman under two extremely intolerant and homophobic regimes, the Nazis and East German communists. The play contains material from first-person interviews playwright Doug Wright conducted with von Mahlsdorf, woven with the perspectives of many others who knew and interacted with her, giving a more faceted picture of this individual than fiction – or the streamlined storylines of history – might allow. All of these perspectives -- more than 30 -- are expressed in the play through a single actor, in this case Demery, who shifts between roles from moment to moment, sifting through layers of perception and identity.
Actor Demery is also the one who decided to stage the play in Juneau, using a Rasmuson grant he received last year to fund part of the project. Demery said he was attracted to the work not only for its amazing story and historical context, but for the way it is written and the unique challenges it poses for an actor.
“It’s interesting, you have an actor, in a particular costume, who is morphing into all these characters, and then you have Charlotte who, also in her life, has played many different characters.”
The play won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2004 as well as a Tony Award for Best Play.
Though it’s a one-man play, there are no “monologues;” rather the different characters converse with each other (through Demery) and at times with the audience, who also must shift roles depending on who Demery is portraying at the moment.
“I am interacting with the audience quite a bit, who in the play become people at the museum on a tour, who become the subject Charlotte... when Doug is talking, who become Doug, who become all of these people. There’s a lot of direct address. It’s very much an interesting mix of straight-up storytelling and showing.”
Demery wears the same clothing through the entire play – a peasant skirt, black blouse, string of pearls and sensible black shoes – and must indicate character changes through his voice, delivery and body language.
“The costume is a palette on which you can throw all these different characters at the audience,” he said.
Demery said Wright, the playwright, was drawn to von Mahlsdorf’s story after meeting her in the early 1990s at her museum in Berlin and hearing a bit about her life. He was intrigued in part because of the dearth of material he had found about gay men’s experience during the Nazi era, and as a gay man himself, he was inspired by von Mahlsdorf’s independent spirit, at one point describing her as a “bona fide gay hero.”
However, while researching her life, Wright came across some troubling information about von Mahlsdorf, causing him to put the project aside for years. But he eventually took it up again after deciding to incorporate his own process of discovery and doubt into the substance of the play. This aspect provides yet another layer to the work; the audience’s experience of discovery is mirrored in both the actor’s portrayal of Wright and in Wright’s own experience in writing the play, while highlighting the idea that we can only guess at the reality of another human experience.
Like Wright, Demery said he at first thought he needed to know for sure if von Mahlsdorf had committed the crimes which she was suspected of committing (such as bludgeoning her own abusive father to death). But as he got into it he decided that not knowing was perhaps more useful in inhabiting his character.
“I think that’s the way it’s written. In a way there is no judgement,” he said.
Lothar Berfelde began regularly dressing as a woman when he was 15, and from then on referred to himself as female, adopting the name Charlotte von Mahlsdorf. She operated a well-known museum in Berlin that featured furniture and other household items, with a particular focus on old record players. In the 1960s she also ran a cabaret in the basement of the museum, which became a gathering spot for the gay community. Among her close friends was Alfred Kirschner, also an art collector. The two became involved in selling merchandise to American soldiers, a crime for which Kirschner was eventually imprisoned, possibly after being given up to the authorities by von Mahlsdorf herself.
Demery said von Mahlsdorf is portrayed as neither martyr nor villain.
“The story isn’t black or white. It’s very gray. It’s a very human story.”
And though the play deals with mature topics, it doesn’t have any overt sexual content. Or, in the words of New York Times reviewer Bruce Weber, “(I)t has, in fact, broader appeal than a mere description would have you believe. It is not an esoteric work, and it isn’t especially kinky. It does, however, tell a terrific story based on a real person ...”
When Demery got the Rasmuson grant, he knew he wanted to do a one-man show, but had not settled on a play. Then, while reviewing possible plays for Perseverance’s 33rd season, he came across “I Am My Own Wife.” He knew the play, having seen it performed in New York some years earlier, but was especially struck by it this second time.
Though his role involves massive amounts of memorization, Demery said it hasn’t been as difficult as it could be due to Wright’s talents as a writer.
“The memorization for Shakespeare is really easy because it's such great writing and I find that with this as well. It just flows and connects very easily.”
Demery enlisted the aid of several Perseverance professionals in staging the play, most notably Artistic Director Art Rotch, who directs. Also on board is Rick Silaj, as stage manager, Dave Dierdorff on props, Betsy Sims on sound, and Roald Simonson handles the projections.
Demery said the project has been unlike anything he’s ever done. He has extensive acting experience with Perseverance, and has also directed a few plays for the company, including “Leading Ladies” and “Circle Mirror Transformation.” Acting roles include Hamlet in “Wittenburg” and Jules in “Boom”
The play will be performed three times in Juneau: at 7:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday and at 3 p.m. Sunday at McPhetres Hall. Then Demery will take it to Anchorage April 13-15, and in May to Skagway. Other cities he is thinking of visiting in the fall are Haines, Sitka and Fairbanks.