Any of us born after World War II have heard such a variety of stories about the conflict. They range from the terrifying first-person tales of Holocaust survivors to the darkly inspirational diary of Anne Frank. However, the astonishing I Am My Own Wife, now playing at the Coachella Valley Repertory Company, tells the tale of a completely different aspect of WWII: a German transvestite who actually SURVIVED the Nazis and East German postwar Communism! How could it be?
This extraordinary play won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the Tony Award for Best Play in 2004. Here, this one-man show stars New York-based actor Vince Gatton and is directed by Ron Celona. This is not fiction—it’s a true story, about Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, written by Doug Wright.
The two-act play takes us through author Wright’s years of investigating Charlotte, with whom he becomes somewhat obsessed. Through the stories, we are taken on a journey in which we meet an amazing 35 characters—all played by this one actor! It is a dramatic tour de force. Celona confesses that after he saw the play in New York, he paced the streets for hours, unable to stop thinking about it. We felt the same after the play. The packed house at CV Rep gave this work a standing ovation at the performance we saw, so the other members of the audience evidently felt the same, too.
The more German language, or even Yiddish, that you know, and the more Deutschland accents you’ve been exposed to, the easier time you’ll have with this experience. There are quite a few untranslated words. You won’t be lost, but you will need full focus to follow it; this two-hour play covers a lot of ground. Frankly, it was the first time I’ve ever felt lucky for knowing the German language at all, since studying it was an absolute nightmare.
The gorgeous, richly decorated stage features warm-toned wooden shelves displaying a treasure trove of objects, from serious collectors’ items to kitsch. Two huge doors upstage center are topped by a screen which flashes the chapter titles as the play progresses. Serious kudos to Jimmy Cuomo for the design, and to Moira Wilke for the clever lighting, which creates multiple settings and mood changes.
Charlotte was born Lothar Berfelde on March 18, 1928, and her realization that she is female, even though she was born a biological male, is a gradual one. She eventually adopts the name Charlotte, and creates her last name, von (meaning “from”) Mahlsdorf, using the name of the town where she was born. Kind of like John Denver, whose real last name was also a multisyllabic German one.
Charlotte wears a skirt and a string of pearls, but her style is a solid peasant look, all in black with clunky shoes and a black headscarf. She wears no makeup or cosmetics of any kind, which allows us to see the actor’s skin change with real emotion, always a rare and jaw-dropping experience. Vince Gatton’s uber-talent is that of a chameleon: He actually physically transforms with each character he plays, so that we are in absolutely no doubt about which one is speaking. He changes his posture, his gestures, his accents and his voice—for, yes, all 35 characters. Believe me.
The astonishing story reveals that Charlotte’s own father is a Nazi. With everything that happens, we are increasingly impressed that this person not just survived, but thrived, in this era. She became a “collector” of phonographs and clocks—even though she was lined up to be shot at one point. Even though gays were sent off to prison and concentration camps from 1933 on—including her best friend, Alfred—Charlotte lives. How?
The show’s program includes a helpful chronology of Lothar/Charlotte’s life. Despite the horror and stress and setbacks she goes through, there are several solid laughs in this show. We get to know her largely through the visits of the writer who is attempting to turn Charlotte’s life into this very play, so it’s sort of a play-within-a-play, a trick that Shakespeare loved to use. But considering Charlotte’s dealings with the storm trooper Nazis, the German police, the black market and the post-war Russian repression of subject matter, there’s no need to embroider the facts to create dramatic impact. Ron Celona’s exquisite direction, however, slides in a subtle worm of doubt: Is Charlotte telling the truth? You’ll have to see the play to find out.
Any actor or student of theater must see this performance. It is epic. There are moments which are beyond description, such as hearing Charlotte name off the kinds of items in her collection, or the bit with a mob of journalists who question her—while Gatton plays each one. This is beyond brilliant—it’s a feat of memory and acting techniques that will leave any of us gasping. Occasionally, we might think we will actually glimpse the actor underneath it all … but then the chameleon changes again, and slips away from us.
Just when you think the play is over, you’ll discover that Celona has placed a surprise in the lobby which puts the cherry on the sundae of this experience. Don’t miss it as you exit.
The Coachella Valley’s theatrical season this year has thus far been a rich one. So how can we emphasize what a totally different experience this play will be for you? This standout show’s premise sounds a little weird, admittedly, but the actual experience is unforgettable. Don’t miss it.
When I was little, my older sister once was explaining to me what a chameleon does, in preparation for her acquiring one. She described the color changes of its skin after being placed on different colored backgrounds—turning red if it is placed on red, green on green, and so on. Always the precocious brat, I inquired, “What if you put it on plaid?”
Vince Gatton, the chameleon actor, shows us plaid.
I Am My Own Wife is performed at 7:30 p.m., Wednesday through Saturday; and 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, March 27, at the Coachella Valley Repertory Theatre, 69930 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $48. For tickets or more information, call 760-296-2966, or visit cvrep.org.