by Roseann Cane
Born Lothar Berfelde in Berlin-Mahlsdorf, Germany, in 1928, the son of a leader of the Nazi Party, Charlotte von Mahlsdorf recognized early in life that she felt more herself in female clothing. Despite her formidable, abusive father, who forced her to join the Hitler Youth, she would become increasingly more comfortable in her sexual orientation, eventually identifying herself as a transvestite when she learned the word from a sex researcher. That she remained true to herself during the Third Reich, and throughout her life in East Germany, surviving the oppression of both Nazism and Communism, could be seen as testament to her courage. At the same time, von Mahlsdorf was imperfect as any human being, with questionable morals. Her complex character makes her an irresistible subject for a character study.
Playwright Doug Wright first contacted von Mahlsdorf in 1992, proposing that he study her life in order to write a play about her. Wright made a series of trips to Germany, visiting her museum populated by the many artifacts and pieces of antique furniture von Mahlsdorf passionately collected over the decades, then taping conversations between the two. I Am My Own Wife was first presented by Playwrights Horizons in 2002.
In Hubbard Hall’s current production, actor Rylan Morsbach enters Andrea Nice’s dark, burnished, evocatively designed set, clad in a modest black dress with apron, pearls, and a headscarf. He addresses the audience in a soft, heavily accented voice; while the German accent was authentic, I found it so thick I had difficulty understanding much of what he said initially. Either I quickly became accustomed to the accent or Morsbach lightened up on it, because I eventually realized that I was understanding every word. Morsbach is a remarkably engaging actor, and his performance is nothing short of astonishing. His embodiment of von Mahlsdorf is complete, as are the many other characters (more than 40, according to several online sources) he becomes, each with a distinctive voice and physical presence.
As von Mahlsdorf’s life unfolds via Morsbach, we are swept into the story of someone who we want to see as heroic, yet we are confronted with some unsavory facts: that her passion for collecting drove her to acquire possessions of Jewish families who had been “removed” by the Nazis; that she was an informant who betrayed colleagues to the Stasi (East Germany’s state police modeled after the KGB) in exchange for protection and favors.
It is here that I think Wright’s script falters. The playwright (one of the characters Morsbach portrays so well) seems that he would prefer not to subject his heroine to an examination of possible misinformation she’s provided, or to question what may have been a cozy relationship with the Stasi she enjoyed. Wright’s distress is palpable if we hear what is unspoken when the character speaks, but the play seems to mirror the indecision that must have tortured the playwright.
Nevertheless, this production is as exciting as it is gratifying, thanks to the brilliant Rylan Morsbach, and the superb direction of Trey Morehouse. Along with Andrea Nice’s aforementioned set, the technical side of this production is all I could have hoped for, and Daniel Salzer and Kristoffer A. Ross’s lighting and sound design seem to emerge organically with the action on stage. I unhesitantly recommend that you catch this gem of a show before it closes on March 17.
I Am My Own Wife by Doug Wright, directed by Trey Morehouse, runs from March 8-17, 2019, at the Hubbard Hall Center for the Arts and Education, 25 East Main Street in Cambridge, NY. Scenic Design by Andrea Nice. Lighting Design & Stage Management by Dan Salzer. Technical Director: Kristoffer Ross. Cast: Rylan Morsbach. Performances Fridays-Saturdays at 7:30 pm and Saturdays-Sundays at 2 pm from March 8-17, 2019. Go to hubbardhall.org or call 518-677-2495, ext 311 for tickets. $25 Adults and $10 Students 6-21.